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Like a breath of fresh air

St. Bede draws 31 international boarders in search of academics and an air quality far better than that in their homeland

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Like a breath of fresh air

Why would a teenaged student from China enroll at St. Bede Academy? One of the oft-cited reasons is the fresh air.

Marcia Wagner organized a Monday scavenger hunt for the international students who will be boarding this year at St. Bede. The search-and-recovery gives the newcomers a chance to learn the lay of the land.

Wagner, dean of residential programs, also learned the Chinese delighted in the great outdoors because they’re accustomed to wearing surgical masks in smoggy Chinese cities.

“One of the girls put on a mask and I told her, ‘You won’t need that here,’” Wagner said, surprising and pleasing the young visitor.

Other surprises and culture shocks await one of St. Bede’s larger and more diverse groups of boarders. Twenty-nine students hail from China and one girl transitioned here from Mexico. A student whose flight was held up is from Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian country that once belonged to the Soviet Union, and whose native tongue is Russian.

The visitor from Mexico is Daniela Flores, 14, of Mexico City.

“I came here last year for summer and I fell in love with the school,” Daniela said. “So I wanted this year to study here.”

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St. Bede Academy students Carleen Chen, Ivy Fan, Wilt Can, Jacob Schirz and Alan Zou gather around a tree stump near the orchard for one of the clues during a scavenger hunt around campus Monday. The hunt was a fun way to familiarize new boarding students with the school.

She’s been impressed with the warm reception she’s gotten so far. She responded guardedly when asked if she plans to graduate from St. Bede — she’s too new to think that far ahead — but jumping from St. Bede to a U.S. college or university is definitely on the table.

The St. Bede administration is pleased with that feedback for several reasons. School officials had set out to boost international enrollment (and foreign tuition). This year’s headcount of 31, the most in six years, represents real progress, or about 10% of the overall student body.

They’re also pleased because a winter recruiting trip did not at first look too promising.

Back in February, Old Man Winter pummeled the Illinois Valley with daytime temperatures of minus-20 — just in time to paralyze campus as 46 prospective students arrived from Nanning, nestled in a tropical zone an hour’s flight from Hanoi, Vietnam.

Wagner acknowledged there likely will be no more recruiting trips in February. Nevertheless, St. Bede managed to attract a student from Nanning, anyway.

Alan Zou wasn’t among the 46 who saw snow for the first time during the February tour, but once his peers thawed out they spoke highly of St. Bede and prompted him to give it a whirl. So far, Alan said, Peru has lived up to his peer’s billing.

“It’s very good and the campus is very beautiful,” the 16-year-old said.

St. Bede has long opened its doors to foreign visitors, but a decade ago the academy formalized its international boarding program and reached out to educators in Asia and Latin America, establishing a sister school with Kinglee High School in Zhengzhou, China.

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The Rev. Dominic Garramone, O.S.B. greets a group of international students who will be attending St. Bede Academy this fall. St. Bede welcomed 31 boarders, which comprises about 10% of the overall student body. Marcia Wagner, dean of residential programs, said the academy plans to grow its boarder program “exponentially” and is looking for families to host weekend stays or take students to dinner to help them acclimate to U.S. life.

Aside from the fresh air, St. Bede holds much appeal because international students find their applications to U.S. colleges are more competitive when they graduate from U.S. schools.

Life at St. Bede can help students perfect their English and even get a reprieve from more arduous school days. In China students typically board during the weekdays and adhere to a grueling dawn-to-dusk school day.

Wagner said these factors will help the students adapt to life in America, though St. Bede is facilitating the transition for students. While most students will be paired in the academy’s 16-bed dormitories, one each for boys and girls, one Chinese boy who recently lost his father is staying with a family in Princeton to help him through bereavement.

“We are always looking for home-stay families,” Wagner said, “and anyone who’s willing to help out on weekends — take them out to dinner, let them stay over — so they can experience what an American family situation is like.”

The boarders will be stay in town for Thanksgiving but may not stay at St. Bede over winter break. Where they go is up to them; Wagner said while students are free to return home others will use Christmas break to visit other parts of the United States.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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