Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

November 16, 2012

Beyond Boarders

International students embrace traditional American holiday and host families

Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress

BULLARD — Siblings Shawn and Danielle Adams and their housemate, Sarah Zhou, might be thousands of miles from their families during their week-long Thanksgiving break from classes at The Brook Hill School,but it hasn't dampened their spirits one bit.

Instead, these boarding students will be spending time with their families, both natural and foster, enjoying all the things that make up this uniquely American holiday.

“We're all so excited for a real Thanksgiving meal,” said Micronesian native Danielle Adams, who is a junior at the school. “We've done the turkey and dressing... ”

“Occasionally, we'll have a turkey, but it's different,” her sister Shawn, a sophomore, explained. “We celebrate something we also call Thanksgiving, but we don't celebrate it the same way. Ours only lasts a day and the food is very different. And, I don't know … just the feeling of (the holiday) is different.”

Chinese native Sarah Zhou said there also is a similar holiday in her homeland called a “festival of families.”

“Aunts and uncles and grandparents – everybody – get together and celebrates,” she said.

This is the first year that the Adams sisters have attended the private Christian boarding school in Bullard, while Sarah, a senior, has been part of the boarding program for three years.

According to Brook Hill residential life director Shawn Rhoads, the school began taking boarders 10 years ago “to extend a great Christ-centered, college prep, education to the world, but also to introduce international students to the Lord, then allow them to go back to their countries equipped with the message of hope.”

It is, he added, the only program of its kind in East Texas. “The next closest boarding school is in North Texas.”

Of the 520 students enrolled at Brook Hill, 40 are boarding students who are from The Federated States of Micronesia, China, Nigeria, America, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand. Boarders can enter the program during their eighth grade year.

“In past years, we’ve had students from places like Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Paraguay, Turks and Caicos – in the Caribbean – Jamaica and Macedonia, just to name a few,” he said, adding that flags representing students' homelands “are prominently displayed in the Bell Library located in Founders Hall.”

The school works hard to ensure students from abroad don't feel lost or left out.

There is a summer immersion program for new international students, held 10 days before classes start in the fall, Rhoads said.

“We take them to places where they can experience American and Texas culture, like San Antonio with its River Walk and amusement parks. We get them accustomed to using U.S. currency, some of the idiomatic phrases of the area as well as some ESL training (English as a Second Language),” he said, adding that the immersion experience helps the school gauge  students English skills.

There's also a brand new International Society, which Sarah founded, “designed to build bridges between the day and boarding students through things like events, games and even trips,” he said, adding that a Dec. 4 international chapel program will allow internationl students an opportunity to share with others “what life for them back in their home country is like.”

When she was considering boarding school while still living at home in Hanguhoe, Sarah said she received offers from more than a dozen different high schools to join their student body. Although she was not familiar with Christianity, she chose Brook Hill based on its reputation.

“I've heard that Christian schools would have better quality teachers and also that the people here were very nice – that's the reason I came here. But I didn't expect this much,” she said. “The teachers and the students have a really good relationships.

“My (sophomore) English teacher and I grew very close,” Sarah said, so much so that she became adopted as a member of the woman's family.

“For me, (it's about) the love that the teachers and students showed. I wasn't a Christian before I came here, but I became one my first year here because of the – I call it 'unreasonable love': People showed their hearts and their love for me though I could not (understand) why they loved me so much,” she said, explaining that her experience in her homeland was vastly different.

The show of Christian love “was totally new for me … it was nothing like this before,” she said. “It really impressed me how people here show me their love. And I feel very blessed to be in this school, to experience this.”

 Shawn agreed.

“I never expected to the school and the students themselves to be so (openly) religious. I've never seen that before. Most people (back home in Pohnpei) are Christian, but they're just not, I guess, open about it. So that was a shock,” she said. “A good one, but it still was a shock!

Many of the boarding students have host families who are on the faculty, Danielle explained. “Even though me and Shawn will be going to visit with family in Fort Worth for Thanksgiving, my biology teacher invites me to her home sometimes for community service and stuff like that.”

Meanwhile, Sarah said she has been invited to spend the Thanksgiving break with her math teacher's family, doing things like hiking. “Whatever her family will (plan to) do, I will be doing also,” she said. “I feel I have a family here – all the teachers are my family. (Since) my first year, they really care about me, so much that they (have become) my family.”

Because of their shared experience as boarding students, living in “the boarding house is starting to feel like home,” Shawn said, describing the sense of community fostered there. “We feel like we can share our problems with each other because we're all girls, and we're all in the same boat This is all new to everybody, some of the students might have two years or more here.”

In the near future, the school will break ground on a new building project that calls for 40 beds, Rhoads said.

When completed, the new facility will become the girls' residence, and the house that Sarah, Danielle and Shawn currently reside in will be used to house boys, giving an equal number of beds for males and females, Rhoads said.

The girls said that being actively involved in extracurricular activities – volleyball and soccer for the Adamses, launching and overseeing the International Club for Sarah – helps keep homesickness at bay and helps them to become more a part of life at Brook Hill.

Encouraging others who are part of, or are considering, the boarding program, Sarah advised them to “'open your heart.' Accept the difference(s) of culture, and then open your heart to others,” she said. “And try to be involved – in my first year here, I was on the drumline, and I was on the dance team last year … I just try my best to get involved through all kinds of things that I can (undstanding) then I will know a lot of friends.”

“When a person first comes in, they're kind of scared,” Danielle said. “they're leaving their families for the first time. But the first day we came, we were welcomed to a pizza party, to a pool party – we just had so many activities together, and (people) welcomed me.”

“The teachers are amazing here,” Shawn said. “They help out every time you ask them.”

Her sister agreed. “All activities that they set up, and (seeing) how outgoing the kids are, is what really helps (boarders adjust to their new home),” she said.

Day students are encouraged to learn more about where their international students are from, and learn what gifts they bring to the school.

“We learn from each other,” Sarah said. “We learn the best about each other.”

Rhoads called it “a rare and beautiful blessing to have a slice of the world sitting right here in our very own back yard.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the students that the Lord has sent to the Village at Brook Hill. I have no doubt that these young men and women will go on to do great things in life, and many of those accomplishments will be done in the name of the Lord and for His glory,” he said.