Chinese student at St. Bernard gets a little of everything in his education

Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day Ian Li, a senior at St. Bernard High School, fields a ground ball during baseball practice in the gym after their game was rained out Thursday. Go to www.theday.com to see a video.

Montville — Teacher Fred Smith asked his English class at Saint Bernard High School to consider how the autistic protagonist's development in a coming-of-age novel called "The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time" is revealed as the story progresses.

"He's able to calm himself down," answered Ian Li, 18, during the morning class earlier this month.

Like the other boys clad in the school uniform of red polo shirt and khaki pants, he sat at the center desk among 12 fellow seniors, who at Smith's direction skipped to different portions of the novel on their paperback copies or on electronic Kindle versions.

"Chris' perspective is the key perspective for the entire novel," Smith told the class as the discussion continued, referring to the name of the main character.

Back home in Beijing, Li, whose Chinese first name is Yanfu, wouldn't have been asked to analyze and discuss literature, or, for that matter, even had the opportunity to read it for class. As a student planning to major in statistics in college, he said, he would have been limited to math and science classes under the Chinese education system, divided from peers with a propensity for the humanities who take literature and social studies courses, he said.

"Now I can experience a little bit of everything," said Li, who started his American education as a sophomore at a private boarding school he said was too easy, then switched to Saint Bernard as a junior. "I have a lot more freedom than I did in China to choose what classes I want to take and the level of competitiveness I want to be in."

Li is one of 34 international students attending the Catholic high school this year. Two of them will graduate with 53 other seniors Friday. Cathy Brown, director of international programs at the school, said the program started three years ago with three students from abroad joining the approximately 400-member student body, and grew to 12 students last year. While all 34 in the program this year are from China, the school hopes to expand to other countries in the future but will limit enrollment to about 10 percent of the total student body, she said.

"We're a global world and being able to connect students with other cultures is very, very important," she said. Nearly all the students come with the intention of improving their English and attending a U.S. college, then returning to their home countries, she said. The international students pay the same $11,700 annual tuition as the other students, Brown said, with an additional cost for boarding with a local host family. The host family arrangements are made through a separate agency that handles international placements.

Smith said the international student initiative has been positive both for the local students and for those coming from overseas, exposing one another to different cultures and perspectives. There were some growing pains initially, he said, as the school figured out how to accommodate English language learners while maintaining its high academic standards. It also added a one-year course for international students that spends half the year on fundamentals of Christian theology and the other half on American history, to give them the basic background they need to pass upper-level required classes.

Li, Smith said, is the "prototype" international student, with a good command of English and dedication to academics and to the life of the school beyond the classroom. He started the school's Ambassador's Club to help orient first-year international students and host groups of prospective students, and is a pitcher and shortstop on the baseball team. He began playing baseball nine years ago, and his skills, he said, have grown manyfold over the last two years as he learned from teammates and the coach nuances of the game he couldn't learn in China, where baseball isn't a common sport. For the spring season, he's batting .400.

"I'm having a really good year in hitting," he said, during an interview in the Waterford home of his host family, baseball coach William Rios and his wife, Marisol, and their son, William Jr., a fellow senior and pitcher who's become one of Li's best friends. The family is hosting a second Chinese student, a wrestler who is in his junior year at Saint Bernard.

"It is a little crazy," said Marisol Rios, referring to the busy schedules of the three boys. Nevertheless, she said, she's enjoyed learning about the Chinese culture and sampling the authentic Chinese dumplings Li made for the family, as well as sharing her Hispanic foods and culture with him.

Li said his parents, who work as white-collar office professionals, suggested he attend school in the United States to improve his English, learn about the West and foster his independence, and he eagerly agreed. During his first year at Saint Bernard, he recalled, he struggled academically, recalling the trial-by-fire of his first English paper. This year, though, he's relaxed and enjoying himself, finding time to go to the movies or out to dinner with friends, and gaining more confidence and fluency in English every day.

"If I didn't want to come here, my parents wouldn't have forced me," said Li, adding that he keeps in touch with them through frequent messages via text, Twitter, Facebook and video calls. "My parents raised me to be very independent."

His parents and grandfather will be attending the graduation ceremonies, then the whole family will journey cross-country to California, ending with a visit to Occidental College in Los Angeles, which Li will attend in the fall. After that, they'll all head home to China for the summer.

"Overall, this has been a great experience," Li said.

j.benson@theday.com

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