By COLIN A. YOUNG Staff Writer
There was too much excited energy to be contained in the Waterford High School library on a recent Monday afternoon. Though classes were through for the day and many students were busy with sports practices or extracurricular activities, a group of about 20 students waited anxiously for a bus to arrive.
The bus carried 15 students from China who, as part of a cultural and academic exchange, spent last week taking classes at Waterford High, sightseeing at Mystic Seaport and visiting Quinnipiac University.
As the bus pulled down the school driveway at about 4:30 p.m. Sept. 30, the Waterford students burst out of the library to greet their guests with handshakes, hugs and smiles.
"For me, it is exciting to see how, over the course of just a week, their presence will filter into the student subculutre here," school psychologist Peter Hunt said of the students from halfway around the globe. "It's a great thing to see what it is like to have students from a different place become a part of us."The 15 students, accompanied by two administrators, came from Weihai No. 2 High School in Shandong province, a peninsula in the Yellow Sea. Hunt and Waterford High guidance counselor Yuan-Yuan Chen helped facilitate the program.
During their stay in Waterford, the Chinese students lived with host families and got to experience what life is like for an American teenager.
"At first, we felt a bit nervous because it is the first time for us to come to the United States but when we saw people's shiny smiles we dispelled all of our misgivings," said Zhen Xi, a junior from Weihai. "During the first day in the host family I really like the kind of joyful lifestyle they are living. And the big houses…we rarely have that in China."
Xi spent the week with Waterford High junior Tegan Ward and her family. Ward had the benefit of having been in Xi's shoes - she has lived in Panama and England, where she started high school.
"It was sort of odd and kind of scary being the only one there that was different from everyone else," Ward said of her time living abroad. "So if she is shy or has a lot of questions, I understand why because I had to ask a whole bunch of people the same questions."
Ward, a forward on the Waterford High field hockey team, taught Xi the basics of the sport and Xi helped the Ward family learn to speak some basic Chinese. Xi said she loved the Mediterranean-style meal the family had for dinner one night, though she struggled to eat the couscous with chopsticks and had to switch to a spoon.
"It's exciting to meet people from other countries and get to know them a little more," said J. Evan Ward, Tegan's father and a professor at the University of Connecticut. "I had a graduate student from China and he taught me some Chinese phrases, so we've been practicing some of those too."
Xi said she enjoys learning English and has taken English language classes since primary school, but has also practiced speaking the language outside of school.
"It's hard for foreigners to learn Chinese because we have totally different intonations and pronunciations. It's totally different from the free style of English," she said. "English is the worldwide language and a lot of people are using it, so it is quite useful for us to communicate with different people and learn about different countries, it is essential."
Xi hopes to someday study psychology at Harvard College or another subject at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She toured both schools just before arriving in Waterford."In China, they are interested in placing as many graduates in English-speaking universities as they can," Hunt said. "So we want to plant many seeds and water them and see what happens."
Before the Chinese students departed Waterford, school officials presented the Weihai No. 2 High School with two gifts: a copy of "The Illustrated History of Waterford" and Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."The partnership between Connecticut and Shandong was established in 2003. The agreement called for the formation of sister schools to help create a cultural exchange for students and teachers. There are more than 100 partnerships between Connecticut and Shandong, according to a Connecticut Department of Education report.
In 2005, Hunt and former Waterford High School Principal Donald Macrino went to the Weihai school and three years later, Weihai's principal and a dozen of its students visited Waterford High. In April, Hunt and a small group of Waterford students returned to Weihai."I always think it is important for our students to realize that there is another world out there and that they really learn about the cultural differences," Kathleen McCarthy, chairwoman of the town's Board of Education, said.
McCarthy said the Board of Education recently established a goal to encourage academic exchange programs and hopes to continue the program with Weihai.
"It's really about an awareness and appreciation for another culture," she said. "To have those exchanges is really worthwhile because our students grow and having that kind of experience encourages them to learn even more."