Starting with one international student from China four years ago, Nechako Lakes school district’s international program has now grown to seven students enrolled this year.
“We learned a lot [since the beginning],” said Leslie Silver, who teaches English in Nechako Valley Secondary and also supports international students in general coursework. “It was intimidating at first when they first come over, as we had very little information [on their education background] and it takes awhile to understand what they did.”
The program’s first student was Junpeng Xue, also known as Charles. Though he may struggle with a little English in his first year at NVSS, he bridged the communication gap between later overseas students and teachers, Silver said.
When she explained to students crucial information such as what they need to graduate, Xue helped to translate immediately, she explained.
Though this year’s seven international students include representation from Switzerland and the Philippines, the majority of the program hails from China, where students are used to an education system that includes long hours of studying and memorizing, Silver said.
“We have a looser structure and a big focus on what do you think, and a personal commitment to what you are learning,” she explained. “For example, when studying Shakespeare, you have to say what you think of it and why, and that’s difficult [for the students.]”
Regardless of the education differences however, the international students are essentially the same as their local classmates, Silver said.
“Kids are kids,” she said. “They might have different backgrounds, different intents, different preferences…there are some students who want to join every club, and some who are awkward socially.
She added, “There’s pressure on them and they are away from home, but they are kids.”
Since last year, the international program provides two annual trips for the international students to experience Canada. The 2014-15 school year included a four-day adventure on Stuart River and a ski weekend on Hudson Bay Mountain.
This past fall, the students participated in a cattle drive hosted by Denise Doswell, Darlene Turner, and Kenny Fawcett at their ranch in Vanderhoof.
The horse-riding experience was fun for Grade 11 student Jiaxian Li, also known as Jane, she said.
In her second year in Vanderhoof, Li is also involved with Vanderhoof Children’s Theatre and cheerleading.
“There are so many fun things to do…I have many foreigner friends,” she said. “But of course you would miss your family.”
Coming from a village in northern China, Li finds the lifestyle in Vanderhoof more quiet and relaxing.
“I don’t like the Chinese education, too intense,” she said. “You can make the schedule really tight [here], but it’s all courses you want to do.”
For her future plans, Li said she would like to be an actress and would try to attend university in Canada.
Grade 12 student Austin Zhang from Beijing agrees that the life and education in Vanderhoof differ greatly from China.
“In school in China, we take a final exam that is very important for getting into university,” Zhang said. “Here there are provincial exams, not one exam to decide, which I think is really great.”
Graduating this year, he said he may attend university in Canada, though he will eventually return to China.
“‘Cause I still have my hometown,” Zhang said. “Some work experience in Canada will help hopefully.”
Enjoying life in a small town with wildlife, mountains, and hiking, Zhang said he has high pressure as an international student.
“I don’t want to let my parents down, and I really push myself to open my mind to strangers.” he said. “In school, I’m taking wrestling, something Canadian…also tried camping and hunting.”
He added, “Learning about Canada is important for me…[the activities are also] helpful for me to build up my body and be healthy.”
In additional to Vanderhoof’s outdoor offerings, Zhang is focussing on adapting to the education system.
“Sometimes, I have to push myself to learn about Canada, I have to understand what the local culture is, the customs and ideas of local students,” he said. “I’m not creative and local students have ideas, good and bad — they really believe in themselves.”
He added, “I think I still need to push myself to do that.”
Home-stay: a learning experience for all involved
Arriving in February 2014, Zhang was hosted by the family of Sylvia and Scott Byron.
“It was good to be exposed to a different culture, and we learn a little bit of his home, and taught him a little about ours as well,” Scott Byron said.
Though the family wasn’t sure if both sides would be comfortable with each other at first, the transition was made easier by open communication, Byron said.
“We’re just friendly and open and honest with him when he got here,” he explained. “He was the exact same way; very easy to talk to, very eager to learn.”
With two boys in the family similar in age to Zhang and attending the same school, the arrangement worked out well, as Zhang joined the family in a variety of activities including downhill skiing and ice fishing, Byron said.
“He enjoyed it, at least he told us that,” he said. “He was very polite.”
Zhang also cooked for the family every Sunday.
“We were told to treat him like any other member of our family,” Byron explained. “Our kids have to cook one day a week, so we told Austin, ‘Well, you’re a member of our family now, you have to cook one day a week.’”
Byron’s favourite dish made by Zhang was a steamed egg and shrimp dish.
“He slaved over his dishes for hours,” he said. “I really remembered that one; he made it for us a couple times.”
Though the home-stay experience was originally meant for Byron’s children to be exposed to another culture, as well as for Zhang to be exposed to Canadian culture, it turned out to be as good for the parents as well, Byron said.
They had a funny cultural learning experience when Zhang first arrived with his mother, he recalled.
“It was a really cold, windy February night, and we took her down to drop her off at the door of the North Country Inn,” Byron said. “As she walked up to her door, she turned around and she waited, stood there and looked at us. We sat waiting for her to go inside, but she wasn’t going inside.”
He continued, “Austin then explains, ‘In our culture it’s traditional, your guest leaves before you go inside.’ We’re explaining that well in our culture, it’s traditional to make sure she gets inside before she freezes to death.”
He added, “She had a skirt on too…in the coldest snap of the year, minus 30, windy.”
Zhang also tried to teach the family a few Chinese words, Byron explained. “We’re just flabbergasted how a different way of enunciating and inflection can give a completely different word,” he said.
To prospective home-stay families, Byron said to give the experience a chance.
“The students that they send over are really nice, very polite, and very helpful,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about someone coming in and be a lump…Austin was very willing to participate in any activities that we suggest.”
He added, “It gave us an opportunity to expose him to Canadian culture and things that we do, and he was able to educate us about his homeland.”
Financially, the school district provides a monthly amount to cover essentials such as food, Byron said.
“There really isn’t much of a real downside to it.”