ORONO, Maine — There are many evenings, Kevin Ritchie said Friday, that the Wal-Mart store in Lincoln is filled with international students from nearby Lee Academy shopping for supplies.
“The local store owners always ask in August: ‘When are those students coming back?’” said Ritchie, dean of academics for Lee Academy, which has 85 international students, including around 40 from China. “Those stores benefit substantially from the international student population.”
That’s just one example of how Lee Academy’s international population contributes to the local economy, Ritchie told about 40 people at the 2009 Maine Chinese Language Conference at the University of Maine.
The goal of the conference is to share information about building Chinese language and culture programs in Maine and establishing partnerships between Maine and China.
Teachers, students, and administrators from academies such as Lee that already have Chinese students, attended the conference with representatives from public schools in communities such as Orono, Westbrook and North Berwick that want to bolster or explore starting their own Chinese culture or Mandarin language programs.
There also were representatives from the state Department of Education, the state Department of Economic and Community Development and the Maine International Trade Center.
Ritchie said the influx of students from all over the world creates economic ripples not only in the small town of Lee, but also in the Bangor region and throughout the state.
The school has added the equivalent of 15 full-time staff positions in the past 4½ years, he said.
Ritchie said international students also make frequent trips to malls in Bangor and Portland and do weekend activities such as canoe trips and whale watches, which support other types of Maine businesses.
And those students bring business to Bangor International Airport as they book flights to and from their home countries.
“This Thanksgiving vacation, at least 60 students will head out to visit friends and family in other parts of the U.S.,” Ritchie said. “There’s a lot of dollars that come into the Bangor airport as a direct result of the movement of students.”
Superintendent Patricia Hopkins of Five Town Community School District, which is based in the Camden-Rockport area, said her district has been talking to Lee Academy about its experience in China because the district is considering a program that would attract a few Chinese students on a tuition basis to Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport for a yearlong program.
“One of the driving factors has been an anticipated decline in enrollment, so we thought this would give our local economy a boost and help enhance the diversity within our school community, and really change the culture to some degree, to benefit our students,” Hopkins said during a break.
Bangor City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer told the audience Bangor is in talks to form a sister-city partnership with a city in the northeastern region of China. Jing Zhang, president of the Bangor Chinese School and director of the Chinese Language and Culture Center of Maine, has helped make some of the connections.
“The community is much larger than Bangor, to put it mildly, but we’re looking at perhaps one district within that community to be one we’re linked with, and I think there are lots of opportunities,” Palmer said.
The conference was sponsored by Lee Academy in collaboration with the Bangor Chinese School, the Chinese Language and Culture Center of Maine, the state Department of Education, the University of Maine and Orono High School.