Montville senior headed to UConn after 4 years in U.S.

Montville High School senior Sabrina Shen on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Montville High School senior Sabrina Shen on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Montville — On Sabrina Shen's first day at Montville High School, she got lost inside the building. She struggled to keep up with the constantly changing class schedules, and at lunchtime she found a seat by herself in the cafeteria.

None of that lasted for long.

Within minutes of sitting down alone on her first day of ninth grade, a group of other students sat down next to her and introduced themselves.

"They just came up to me and said, my name is 'so and so,'" Shen said.

Shen, who moved to Montville with her parents from Shaoxing, China, a week before her first day at Montville High, is now preparing to start as a freshman at the University of Connecticut.

The highest-scoring member of Montville High's math team, the secretary of the school's international club, a member of the Honors Society and a student in several AP classes, she'll be getting a full scholarship for a degree in mechanical engineering.

She's come a long way from memorizing multiplication tables as a first-grader in Shaoxing.

"The first year, I only talked to Chinese students," she said, remembering the first days in Montville. "I could only communicate in Chinese."

But over the next couple of years Shen blossomed, making friends across the school.

She began to tutor Mohegan Elementary School English language learner students and volunteer with the senior residents of Orchard Grove Specialty Care and at the Raymond Library.

She has taught her American friends about the Chinese tradition of giving money as a gift for the Chinese New Year holiday and made dumplings in the cafeteria.

It's a very different life from the one she would have led in Shaoxing.

"The school system is so different from the one in China," she said.

"Here, there's not much homework — there are clubs and community service," she said. "In China, it's only work."

Shen said she typically would be at school in China from early in the morning until 5 p.m., sitting in the same room all day and taking lessons in supplementary subjects on the weekends.

"We would just stretch between classes and get started again," she said.

At the end of June, many of Shen's friends back in China will be sitting for a two-day college entrance examination known as the gaokao, or "high test."

"If they don't pass, they have to wait for the next year," Shen said. "The SAT you can take as many times as you want."

Shen said while she doesn't envy her friends who are finishing high school in China, the education she got there has served her well.

Spending hours learning multiplication tables as a first-grader put her far ahead of her classmates in math once she got to Montville.

A school counselor placed her in Algebra 1 in ninth grade.

"I was there for a week," she said. "I skipped geometry, and the teacher moved me to Algebra 2."

Shen says she sees solving a math problem as a small victory.

"I just like to solve problems, especially very hard ones," she said. "When I solve them, I feel like it's an achievement."

Shen's grandparents were the first in her family to move to the U.S. — they went to New York, then to Montville to work at Mohegan Sun.

Her aunts and three cousins followed, then her parents.

Shen's mom works as a housekeeper at Mohegan Sun, and her dad works at a restaurant in Griswold.

Then, last year, her American family grew even bigger when Shen got a baby sister, Jennifer.

Next week, Shen will turn 18. The day after that, Jennifer will turn 1.

"The first time my mom told me that I was going to have a baby sister, I wasn't sure I would like it," she said. "Then, when she was born, I loved her so much."

Shen takes care of her sister on the weekends in between volunteering gigs and studying.

She said she knows her parents came to the U.S. to give her a better education.

"It was about my future, my education," she said. "I had more opportunity in America."

m.shanahan@theday.com

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