ORONO, Maine — Thanks to a successful expedition by a delegation from Orono High School, up to 20 Chinese students could experience a very different sort of education next year.
Principal Jim Chasse, international program coordinator Mackenzie Grobmyer, guidance counselor Peter Buehner, two teachers and one student returned from the trip this week after visiting eight Chinese schools, including some with as many as 6,000 students, in late March.
About 20 students sat down with the Orono High School staff to interview for a chance to come to the United States for their last year of high school.
The school of approximately 370 students has been trying to draw a larger group of exchange students in an effort to increase diversity and expose local high schoolers to more cultural traditions, Grobmyer and Buehner said Wednesday. Orono High School currently has nine Chinese students enrolled, along with 11 other international students from other nations.
“We think [the trip] was very successful because we have a teacher delegation that now understands the Chinese culture and that will advocate for our international students and encourage them and help them through their year,” Grobmyer said. “We can now appreciate the culture shock they’re going to experience when they come.”
The biggest lesson the group gleaned from the trip, Grobmyer and Buehner said, was that a Chinese student learns in an environment that differs widely from that of an American student.
“Their curriculum is just completely handed down by the Ministry of Education [of China], and everyone pretty much follows the same curriculum across the country,” Buehner said.
Classes run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., followed by a break for dinner until students attend a mandatory study hall from 7 to 10 p.m. That leaves little to no time for extracurricular activities or recreation when school is in session, Grobmyer said.
“Honestly, at first, we had to force them to enjoy free time” by setting up basketball games for the students or sending them on shopping trips, she said.
Courses usually hold between 50 and 75 students and there’s little, if any, time for interaction between students and their instructors. During physical education classes at some of the larger schools in the country, thousands of students line up in formation and run circles around the track until class ends.
Grobmyer said most Chinese schools show vast interest in the American education system and hold it in high regard.
“They want to learn from us as American educators. They’re very curious about how we teach and what we teach,” Grobmyer said.
In recent years, more and more Maine schools have turned eyes to China while seeking higher enrollment. Lee Academy will host 100 students this summer for four-week Advanced Placement or college-level courses.
American universities are widely lauded and promoted in Chinese high schools, the Orono educators said. Coming to spend a year of high school in America allows the international students to get acclimated to life in the U.S. without the added stresses of a college workload.
The Chinese students pay $21,000 for a year of tuition at Orono High School. The school gets $13,000 and the other $8,000 goes to the University of Maine, which allows international high school students to live in Somerset Hall dormitory rooms. Gobmyer lives on the same floor as the students, acting as a residence director.
The students get to take advantage of most of the benefits of being a UMaine student, including a MaineCard, meal plans and access to campus facilities and events.
“They love the fact that they can be part of the university at the high school level,” Buehner said.
Each student has a host family in Orono that takes them in during weekends and holidays and attends sporting events and musical performances to show support, according to Chasse.
Chasse said the international exchange program is entirely self-funded. International student tuition covered the costs of the six-person trip to China, educational materials for the program, as well as substitute teachers to cover the classrooms of those traveling overseas.