‘I feel like I’m so special’: International students love going to high school here

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross

Juejie Pan and Zuwei Liare are part of a rapidly growing complement of international students at local Catholic high schools, the result of a recruitment campaign created to help fill all the empty desks as enrolment declines.

They say they love going to high school in Windsor, where any homesickness for their families in China has been negated by  the friendships they’ve forged.

“Seriously, I  have so many friends,” says Zuwei, 17, speaking solid English and dressed in the school uniform for Holy Names, the South Windsor Catholic high school he’s attended for the last year. In China, students spend their whole day, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., in school.

“And there’s huge pressure, from the school and from parents, you have to study all day, six days a week.”

He can barely contain his excitement as he describes how students can become friends with their teachers here, and how fun it is to be billeted with a bustling three-child Windsor family, much different from China where the one-child rule equates to a fairly sedate home life.

“In Canada, you can enjoy your life,” says Zuwei, who spoke such little English when he arrived here in 2012 the immigration officials had no idea what he was saying. These days he’s learning French from his host family and is a road hockey regular.

Last year — the first year when students started coming — there were 11. This year there are more than 80 motivated and bright students from such countries as China, South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Japan. And if the Catholic board had more families willing to billet an international student, there could be hundreds more, says Sherrilynn Colley-Vegh, director of the International Education Program.

She recalled how last year at a high school dance, the Japanese students plugged their iPod into the sound system and the entire student body was dancing to their music. At St. Anne in June, about 300 students came out to a going-away party for a departing Spanish student . The international students are taken to hockey games, bowling and many other typically Canadian outings.

“It’s been a really neat experience,” said Colley-Vegh, who recently returned from a recruiting trip to China and South Korea. She said the presence of students from other countries also benefits the Canadian students. Math teachers have commented that Japanese students in their classes approached problems in very different ways than the rest of the class.

While the students are scattered throughout the Catholic high schools in the region, Assumption high school is particularly attractive because of its International Baccalaureate program — an accredited academic program that  can cost $40,000 to $50,000 at private schools elsewhere in the world, she said.

The students pay a tuition of around $11,000 — about the same amount the Education Ministry funds per Ontario student –  plus $700 a month to the host family. While the program helps with declining enrolment, “it also helps the city,” said Colley-Vegh. Many families end up following their children to Windsor and end up buying a house and setting up a life here. The students often end up attending the University of Windsor.

Mario Iatonna, the Catholic board’s executive superintendent of corporate services, said when the program was approved, the plan was to break even by Year 5. But it broke even in Year 3, started making profit last year in Year 4 ($25,000) and this year the projected revenue is $200,000.

“We have empty spaces, so putting a body in that space is a benefit to the board,” said Iatonna, who cited as an example Brennan high school, which has 300 vacant spaces.

The local public board doesn’t actively recruit international students, but does attract some, primarily to Massey high school which has an international reputation for its enriched math program. This year the board has 39 high school and seven elementary students, said spokesman Scott Scantlebury.

Juejie, 17, said her mother wanted her to come here because she thought of Canada as a peaceful country with good security and an education that fit her daughter’s needs better than the Chinese system.

“In China, I had to take subjects I don’t want, and the competition is very hard,” she said. “If I come here, I’m probably going to get into a university I want (she’s applying to the universities of Toronto and Waterloo for math and engineering), but in China, I may not.”

At Holy Names, she volunteers in the Peers as Teacher Helpers program, assisting Grade 9 and 10 students with science.

“I really enjoy my life here,” she said, recounting how in her first year she billeted with a Chinese-Canadian family, but became such good friends with one schoolmate, Vabna Talukdar, that she asked if she could move into her family’s house. Recently, the family had a birthday party for Vabna, and had cakes for both girls.

“I feel like I’m so special,” Juejie said.

The scenario was similar for Zuwei, who last year forged a close friendship with Randy Daigle, a Grade 12 student last year who’s now in computer engineering at the U of W.

“I asked Randy: Can I move into your house? And he said: ‘Yeah, sure, my mom likes you a lot.”

Zuwei, who is applying to the U of W’s engineering program for next fall, said he moved in with the Daigle family in September and they were already making plans for Christmas.

“It’s pretty fun, they’re an awesome family.”