Catholic Free Press

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Foreign students in Worcester Catholic Schools

Posted By May 22, 2014 | 1:09 pm | Lead Story #2
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By Patricia O’Connell
CFP Correspondent

WORCESTER – Thanh Vu wants to be a priest. He also wants to be a doctor.
This double calling, he explains, will one day allow him to help heal the body as well as the soul.
The new graduate of Holy Name Central Catholic High School said he is drawn to the Jesuit order because these religious fathers once brought the Catholic faith to his native Vietnam. He now hopes to bring the Gospel message to others, and he’s willing to go where ever God sends him.
“I kind of want to go around the world to help more people,” he noted.
Mr. Vu is one of dozens of foreign students now studying in the local Catholic high schools, where approximately 10 percent of the student body is now born overseas.
Typically, the parents of these students remain in their homeland, while their offspring live here, usually with host families. This mirrors a nationwide movement seen in higher education. Across the country, there are more than 819,000 students from China, Korea, India, Africa and elsewhere studying at American colleges and universities, according to the Institute for International Education, an organization to strives to increase access to international education.
“They’re coming because they want to have an opportunity to be educated in America,” explains Matthew Sturgis, headmaster at St. Peter Marian Central Catholic High School.
This is the third year, he noted, that his school has had a program for foreign students who hope to get a competitive edge on the college application process by attending an American high school.
Mr. Sturgis said St. Peter-Marian works with several recruiting agencies that place students in American high schools and coordinate their living arrangements. Although most of these students are not Catholic, they, nevertheless, receive the same religious instruction as everyone else.
“They know that we’re a Catholic school and that we are a strong school academically and they help place them here,” he said of these agencies.
After graduation, he noted, these foreign students generally attend an American university.
“Most of them get into good colleges,” he said. “Most of them come with the idea that they want to stay and get into an American college.”
“The vast majority want to stay here,” he added. “We sometimes take our education system for granted. They look at the education and they think it’s very good. It’s something the foreign students aspire to.”
Mr. Sturgis acknowledged that it’s difficult for most American parents to comprehend sending their teenage children overseas, but he noted that this isn’t seen as unusual in some foreign countries.
“It’s a different culture,” he said. “They leave and go abroad at very young ages.”
Mr. Sturgis said the foreign students arrive here for high school. He said he tries to discourage hosting seventh- and eighth-graders because he believes they’re generally too young for the experience.
Obtaining a Catholic education is not the reason most of these students travel, Mr. Sturgis admitted. However, he believes he’s seen the seeds of faith being planted. “With some of the kids there’s a real interest level,” he said.
“We encourage them to play sports,” he added. “We encourage them to get involved.”
He said the foreign students participate in school-wide functions, such as going to the prom and other extracurricular events.
“At our Christmas semi-formal they had their own table,” he explained. “By the end of the night, they were all integrated.”
Mr. Sturgis said having foreigners at St. Peter-Marian offers a benefit for the local students, as they’re exposed to people from very different cultures. This, he said, will help them when they move on, as they’re bound to encounter people from all walks of life.
“It’s really helped the diversity in the schools,” he said. “It really kind of opens our kids’ eyes, it is a big world out there.”
St. Peter-Marian, this year, has hired Marcus Watson, its first International Student Director, who guides the 50 foreign students at the school. He acts as guidance counselor, as well as adjustment counselor.
“I wear a lot of different hats,” he stated.
This spring, he traveled to China on a recruiting mission, in order to meet prospective students and their families. “There is definitely an ample pool to choose from,” he said.
He believes the students, ideally, should be no older than 10th grade, since this seems to be the cutoff for when it becomes more difficult to adjust.
Mr. Watson said the students come from a variety of backgrounds, similar to the local student population. Some of their parents can easily afford to send them to study in America. Others, he explained, come from more modest circumstances, where both parents work hard and sacrifice to send them here.
A similar ratio of foreign to local students is also found at Holy Name Central Catholic High School. Headmaster Ed Reynolds said when they arrive, they are exposed to the same religious instruction as everyone else.
Of the school’s 570 students, 55 of them come from either China or South Korea. Holy Name has been enrolling foreign students since 2004, he explained.
His school could accommodate more, but the upper limit, set by the diocesan school department, is 10 percent of the total student population. The local Catholic schools, he believes, are very attractive to the parents of these children.
“They recognize our school as offering an outstanding academic experience in a Christian environment,” he noted. “We uphold family values.”
However, he said the usual reason for traveling thousands of miles away for high school is not necessarily for religious reasons.
“I think the study of theology is not the primary motivation, although many have been evangelized through the school experience,” he said.
“Every student who comes to our schools learns about the Catholic faith,” he added. “Every student is exposed to our Catholic faith. Not only are they learning about it, but they get to experience the Catholic faith in action.”
Mr. Reynolds said, in general, the foreign students adapt to life in America very well.
Mr. Vu, however, said being educated in a Catholic environment was high on his list of priorities. This would not have been possible in socialist Vietnam, he noted.
Superintendent Delma Josephson said families send students here for an American education. She said the number of students accepted is limited because “we’re not looking to change the culture of our schools.”
“Ten percent is a number I don’t want to be going beyond,” she added. “You want to offer them the reason they came here – an American education in an American Catholic school.”
She said although they were born far away, once they arrive, they are not considered foreign students.
“Once they become our students, they become our students,” she noted.