International Students Find Their Voice

As she stepped into the classroom during her first year as a sophomore, Jessie Zhao immediately felt out-of-place. She was outnumbered and lost in a sea of misunderstanding. There was no escape.

Zhao was the only international student in her Honors Sophomore English class taught by Misharra Hefler.

“I was surrounded by people who have known each other for years. I didn’t even dare to raise my hand. I was scared that people wouldn’t understand me,”

 said Zhao. The fear of not being able to speak well enough initially left her silent.

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Misharra Hefler and two students looking over the edge to see the water.

As of October 6, 2014, there are 150 students that can relate at least in part to Zhao’s struggles and bravery while adjusting to a new country and school. According to Abby Swardlick, Associate Director of Admissions, there are 40 International students in homestay and 112 in the dorms. The students are from 22 different countries. Thornton’s international program is part of a larger trend. According to the Institute of International Education’s Project Atlas, there were 764,495 international students in the United States in 2011-2012.

Swardlick — along with other staff members — go to represent the school at school fairs, agency events, and at home visits. Staff members in Admissions take multiple trips throughout the year to countries where some of the students are from and to countries that are not yet represented to try and recruit new students.

“I had two options. Thornton Academy or Washington Academy which is north. It is practically Canada,” said Vojta Brtinsky from Czech Republic. Brtinsky is one of many students who went through an agent when choosing a school in America. An agent helps the student navigate the process of finding a good match for boarding school in America.

Like Brtinsky, “Most of them are looking at multiple schools,” said Swardlick. Once they do narrow down which schools they are thinking about, they then must go through a multi-step interview process.

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Iaryna Iasenytska, Amy Nguyen, Mila Wu, Angela Dong, and Alice Nguyen looking at a fairy house on a trip to Mackworth Island.

“We are looking for well-rounded students. Someone who is going to work hard, be outgoing, and be a good student,” said Swardlick. After the interview, they are chosen by a group of staff at school. If chosen, they get sent an acceptance letter along with other information to complete the enrollment process.

Vojta Machytka, Brtinsky’s first friend at school, is also from Czech Republic and said, “I didn’t really know what to expect.” Machytka — like many other students — visited Thornton Academy earlier with her parents, but nothing can fully prepare a student who is coming to Saco from the other side of the world.

Chau said, “The only time that I had seen so many foreign people was in Starbucks in China.”

Machytka said, “I came earlier to see one of the dance shows with my father… It was the reason why I came here.”

Swardlick said, “It is important for them to make a decision,” stressing the fact that once the student makes the choice, it is important for to be committed to the school and completing the process.

Suki Chau said, “You decided to come here; you have to prove that it is worth it.”

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Angela Dong walking down a path to the beach while on the Mackworth Island trip.

Chau made the choice to come to Thornton Academy because of the quiet environment in addition to it helping her English skills. This was a big choice, that but she has now gone through three years of schooling here and she is pleased that her decision was the right one. Out of the 150 students who are attending this year, 80 of them returned from last year. Out of that 150, 7 of them attend the middle school.

Chau said, “it is okay to have a little homesickness, but you have to get over it. It isn’t easy… Take advantage of your time.”

Zhao and Chau have both come far since their first years in Saco. Chau is now an active part of the dance and theatre groups at school and willing to talk to anyone and Zhao is now one of the best students in her grade and an active member in all of her classes.

Zhao explains, “I have been immersed into the culture and I am now a part of it.” There is extreme growth that happens within each of the students. Zhao has experienced it first hand.

“I now fit in with the culture. I care about fitting in now,” said Zhao.

Brtinsky said, “I have learned not to be afraid to say anything or ask anything because [everyone] will help you.”

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