BANGOR, Maine — Minh Le has gone from one extreme to the other in the last year and a half, going from living in a home city of 9 million people to a Maine mill town with a population of just under 7,000.
Now he finds himself somewhere in the middle in Bangor, and that’s just about perfect for the 17-year-old high school senior.
“Bangor is much smaller than my home city, but it is much bigger than Skowhegan. I like it better,” said Le, who was an exchange student at Skowhegan High School last year.
This year, Le is one of the 39 members of John Bapst Memorial High School’s inaugural international program class featuring 37 students from China, one from Vietnam, and one South Korean.
“It wasn’t that long ago that U.S.-China was an extremely difficult relationship,” said Mel MacKay, John Bapst’s head of school. “We’re part of something much, much bigger than John Bapst as this wave of students from China is unprecedented.”
And if Le is a good indication for his fellow international students, this unprecedented wave is not leaving international students flailing in choppy waters. It seems that the ambitious, fledgling program couldn’t have gone much better for everyone involved.
“Absolutely. I expected much more homesickness and culture shock,” said Spencer Ladd, one of the six “house parents.”
House parents act as role models, liaisons, chaperones, authority figures, facilitators and parental figures at Bapst’s three newly-purchased and remodeled dormitory houses on Broadway and French Street.
“I lived in China for five years and some people would have nervous breakdowns because things were so different, but these students are adapting better than I did,” said Ladd, whose wife Li has been teaching Chinese at Bapst for two years. “We’ve actually had a couple of parents call because their sons hadn’t called in three days, so we’re taking that as a good sign.”
Le has no complaints.
“I really like Bangor because in this area, you can go anywhere. It’s only five minutes from school, we have stores like Walgreen’s nearby and I can go to Bangor Public Library every day,” he explained.
Le’s roommate, 16-year-old sophomore George Sun admits to being a bit homesick as this is his first experience abroad, but he’s still glad he applied to attend John Bapst.
“I miss my family, but I talk to them on Skype about every one or two days,” Sun explained. “But I think I’m very lucky to come here.”
So does Le.
“John Bapst is a really good school and they offer great classes to prepare you for college so I think it can help me,” said Le, who wants to study business at Yale University or the universities of Minnesota, Utah or Texas.
Le is not afflicted with homesickness.
“No, I’m making quite a few friends and I’m pretty busy this year so I don’t have time to be homesick,” he said.
That brings a smile to the faces of MacKay, architect of the international program, and Colleen Grover, John Bapst’s dean of admissions and career counseling.
“We started studying this for almost a year, starting in October of 2009. We weren’t going to get into this if we couldn’t do it well,” said MacKay.
MacKay and Grover have spent lots of time travelling overseas over the last two years, recruiting students and establishing contacts by using educational agencies and facilitators who specialize in matching students with ideal schools.
“Before, our travel consisted of going to area middle schools to talk about John Bapst,” Grover said. “Now we’re recruiting around the world.
“I’m leaving at the end of October and going to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Seoul, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Ankara, Istanbul … and that’s my first trip of the year. I’m also going to Dubai and Moscow and Miami.”
Grover said it has been a steep learning curve for relearning school promotions.
“Most of my trips are meets with agents, not students, and going to workshops and fairs that put together schools and agents,” she explained.
While the integration of the international program has brought many changes, they haven’t been as radical as one might think.
“The presence of international students will not add challenges to the system we already have in place,” said Craig Butler, Bapst’s international program director. “We haven’t reinvented ourselves in the least, and we haven’t moved away from our rigorous college prep program because that’s what our mission is all about and it’s what attracts students to our school.”
John Bapst has added English as a second language to its curriculum and an ESL director [Ben Hale]. Other changes include the purchases of dorm houses, adding another varsity math team to make three total, hiring a school nurse, doubling the school’s advanced placement physics class to 18 students, expanding the hours for the school library and gym, and hiring two cooks to prepare weekday breakfasts and suppers and weekend brunches and suppers.
The cooks prepare meals in space provided by neighboring St. John’s Episcopal Church for the 39 international students and five John Bapst Scholar program members — 24 girls and 20 boys — who also live on campus, but come from outlying Maine communities on scholarships.
The extra attention provided to many comforts of home for the on-campus students seems to have paid off.
“We’ve had students confused about schedules, how to join a team or club, how to rent instruments, how to combat homesickness … and we have people to help them with those things,” said Craig Butler, director of the international program. “When you have an organization in change mode, you don’t want to hide the key and lock yourself in your office. I want to be available, along with all our staff, to students for any issues that crop up.”
Bapst is just one short of its maximum allotment for international students, the current students appear to be content, and there is already a waiting list for spots next fall.
“We’ll probably have a few more students next year, but our numbers are generally set due to the size of our school,” said Grover. “Our goal is not to become a large school. It’s to provide the best quality education and educational experience we can, and this international program enhances our ability to do that.”