Our students from around the world: their journeys and experiences in the United States
After a three-hour car ride from Bratislava, Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary, a two-hour flight to Amsterdam and an eight-hour flight to the United States, junior Karolina Cizmarova finally landed in Minneapolis on a hot August day. She grabbed her luggage and met her host family for the first time. As they left the airport in their family car, Cizmarova couldn’t help but think, “I’m being driven in a car full of strangers”.
Every year, Minnehaha welcomes new students from Slovakia and China to attend the Upper School. Studying in the U.S. immerses the students in American culture, but Minnehaha’s students gain as well by having an opportunity to learn.
“I’ve learned that meeting and living with new people isn’t that bad,” said sophomore Annis Cairns, whose family is hosting Cizmarova for the semester. “Sure, it’s kind of awkward at first, but now it’s not awkward like it was at the beginning.”
Whether they come from China or Slovakia, substantial amounts of planning, nerves, excitement, adjustments and memories are all a part of the process for students and families.
Slovakian sister school
The Slovakian students are connected to Minnehaha through a program that sister school C.S. Lewis Bilingual High School in Bratislava, Slovakia, created about 15 years ago. It is a program that gives their students an opportunity to study at Minnehaha, aiming to enhance their education and implement Christian values into their own school.
The program is open to sophomores and juniors. In order to be accepted, the applicants have to write an essay about themselves.
“In my application essay, I wrote that I really want to step out of my comfort zone and fully connect with new people in the Minnehaha community,” said junior Patrik Pavlik, the other Slovakian exchange student from the CS Lewis school.
The school will then review it and interview the applicants to determine whether the student will fit in well at Minnehaha. They accept only two students per year. If accepted, they are sent here for one semester on scholarship.
The students who are denied can still study abroad. They travel through agencies outside of school, similar to the Chinese students.
By the numbers
Every year, about 10 to 15 students from the CS Lewis school study in a different country. They make up only a small percentage of the world’s international students. According to the Institute of International Education, 1,095,299 international students studied in the U.S. last year.
Future exchange program?
Minnehaha might consider sending students to study at the CS Lewis school in the future, according to Julie Johnson, psychology and business teacher at the Upper School, who often coordinates with the Slovakian student program. Aspects such as gaining enough credits and AP classes if desired, would have to be taken into consideration.
If there was a program that did offer an opportunity for Minnehaha’s students to study at the CS Lewis school, it could really be an eye-opening experience, according to Pavlik.
“Minnehaha should seriously start thinking about sending students for a semester or two to Slovakia,” said Pavlik. “Experiencing a different culture breaks many stereotypes, brings contrast to your own ways, and lets you contemplate about actions you take in your own culture. It is a life-changing experience, and I wish everybody had a chance to undergo such a program as I did.”
From China to America
On the other hand, the Chinese students have to seek out an agency independently. Sophomore Delancy Ma went through AHLI, an agency based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that helps students pursue their aspirations to study in the United States by organizing schools and host families.
Ma signed up with the agency in August 2018 and was placed in an American school almost immediately. The Chinese international students usually do not receive a scholarship, so most pay full tuition and stay for all four years of high school.
“I want to go to [a] really, really good college,” said Delancy Ma. “[That] is my main goal.”
After legal forms are completed, which include an F1 visa and a Form I-20, the next step is to find a host family. Minnehaha works with the C.S. Lewis school to place the Slovakian students in suitable homes. This program is widely known among the school community, so eventually there is always a family willing to host. Since Chinese students work with independent agencies, they are not necessarily placed in a home with connections to Minnehaha.
“My host family doesn’t have connections with MA,” said senior Hongxu Ma, who came to Minnehaha last year. “[The] agency helped me find them. I don’t think it affected anything. They’re nice people, that’s the most important thing for me.”
A home away from home
Regardless, the families incorporate the students into their homes. They can eat together and spend time together just as a normal family would. If the host family is a really good fit for the student, it could be a really positive experience.
“You either really connect with them and just build a lifelong relationship or you don’t,” said Cizmarova, who is staying with the Cairns family during her time here. “And I think that’s fine like that. You just cannot pick who you want to stay with, but I think I found the match.”
An everyday teen
Outside of school, Chinese and Slovakian students spend their time on the same things as American students do. During the week, they are busy with homework, sports, extracurriculars and even household tasks like cooking.
“Recently, I have been very busy [with the play], so I have gotten home usually at six or ten,” said Ma. “It’s kind of late and I have to do my homework, so I’m kind of tired. I’ll do homework and [my host family] will sometimes make dinner. If they don’t make dinner, I will make myself some simple ones.”
Living in a household — and another country — that speaks a foreign language calls for adjustments. Learning a new language well enough that you can keep up in conversations, classes and readings is a difficult task that requires discipline and focus. According to Ma, she began learning English when she was in third grade, but didn’t really pick it up until last year when she went to school in Virginia, before transferring to Minnehaha for a better education.
Hopes and dreams
Students come to the U.S. with hopes and goals. They come in with a heavy focus on education and experience. With so little time, there is pressure to have the perfect experience and to get the most out of their time here they can.
Minnehaha provides quality education that is not always available to students in other countries, so studying here is a great opportunity.
“Coming to the United States to attend high school will leave a completely different mark on my life,” said Hongxu Ma. “The differences in teaching methods, culture and other aspects make me think from different perspectives.”
They offer much in return
As students and friends, the international students offer a lot to our community as well.
“They bring a lot of those good skills, like respect and loyalty and honesty and those things that are really drilled into them as children when they’re [back home],” said Michelle Ulland, director of admission. “And I think they also can show us to be brave and to come to a totally different country, and go to school, and be here by yourself. Those are all things that we can take from them.”