PROVIDENCE — When Kairui Miao, an eleventh grade student from Tianjin, China began looking for a school where she could spend part of her high school experience abroad, she was nervous but excited about the prospect of living in another country.
“Before I came here, I’d never left home for more than five days,” she said. “I wanted to learn about American culture. This is an adventure for me.”
Eventually, Miao and her family decided the private, all-girls environment and East Coast location of St. Mary Academy – Bay View would be a good fit. She applied through an agency and submitted transcripts and other materials, participating in an interview with Bay View admissions staff via Skype. After learning of her acceptance, she made arrangements through the school to live with a local family, including her host sister and fellow Bay View student, Isabel.
“I chose Bay View because it’s a very diverse school, and very safe and secure,” she said. Miao is one of more than 200 international students currently studying in Catholic high schools and middle schools within the Diocese of Providence. The experiences of these students range from a brief one-semester exchange to a full four years of American high school, while their countries of origin include China, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Thailand, Haiti, Chile and Brazil.
“We’re looking to bring in a mix so that they can meet different kinds of students from around the world,” said Jan Cooney, director of admissions at Bay View. “We’re looking to enhance the experience of students here as well as theirs.”
Bay View hosted its first international student in 2007, at a time when international exchange programs were growing in popularity among U.S. high schools. In Rhode Island, such programs have expanded dramatically over the past five years, with international students comprising as much as 10 percent of the total student population at some Catholic high schools.
“It’s beneficial not only to the students who are here, but also the students hosting them,” said Kate Nagele, admissions coordinator at Bay View.
The benefits of participating in an international study program range from the academic to the cultural and social, with students developing greater independence as they learn to interact with peers whose backgrounds may differ from their own. The course of study also plays a major role, with many international students choosing the American education system for its distinct learning environment.
“In China, it’s a totally different world,” said Lifan Deng, a sophomore at St. Raphael Academy. “In school, we only focus on schoolwork and the grade you have. I wanted to change a little bit.”
Deng said that in China, the lack of cultural support for extracurricular activities prompted him to consider studying somewhere that would contribute more to his overall growth. In the U.S., where participation in the arts and sports is considered standard for most high schoolers, Deng is a member of the choir and drama club, plays soccer and serves as president of the sophomore class. His parents, he said, were supportive of the switch.
“They want their kids to get more well-rounded activities,” said Linda Michalczyk, international student coordinator at St. Ray’s. “More and more parents are realizing this.”
Participation in extracurricular activities is also valued by American universities, whose admissions departments look at school involvement as well as grades and English language skills when considering international students. For students like Sylvia, an Italian student in her junior year at Bay View, attending an American high school for one or more semesters increases her chances of being admitted to a top U.S. university.
“I came here because I wanted to learn English and experience another country,” said Sylvia, who hopes to attend Brown University.
One of the largest cultural shifts international students experience is attending a high school that is not only English-speaking and American, but Catholic. The religious affiliation can be an adjustment particularly for Chinese students, who represent the largest international student population at Rhode Island private high schools and come from a country that is less than 1 percent Catholic.
“We are an all-girls Catholic school, and to some of the girls who are applying, that’s different from what they have in their countries,” said Cooney. Though Bay View discusses the school’s Catholic identity with applicants during the interview process, Cooney said it usually does not serve as a hindrance to families. Parents looking at international schools want their children to receive a private, values-based education, something Catholic schools deliver.
Still, religious education was a new experience for Molly Mo, a sophomore Chinese student at St. Ray’s, who said her freshman year religion grade suffered until extra help from her teacher helped her acclimate to the class. Now, Mo sings at Mass and enjoys participating in the school’s various community service initiatives, including the food pantry and a homeless advocacy sleepout.
“I see it as part of the culture, so I respect that,” added Kate Zhou, a senior Chinese student at St. Ray’s who shares a host family with Mo.
Though both students and host communities need to be open to adjustments when participating in international exchanges, Michalczyk said the cultural impact has been positive for both St. Ray’s and students who choose to attend. Among the benefits to the school community was the introduction of ESL classes, which school administrators are now considering opening up to Rhode Island-born students who speak a language other than English at home.
“I think we’ve really benefitted from opening our doors,” she said. “We are a very diverse school and being very globally diverse has added to that.”
Still, the best praise of international programs comes from students who have integrated into the community and enjoyed their experience at a Catholic high school. Nagele, at Bay View, said she loves getting applications from friends of students who attended the school and shared their stories with others back home.
“They talk about Bay View, which is the greatest compliment for us,” she said.