BRIGHTON — Written in Mandarin Chinese characters, the poster hanging over the hallway at the main entrance to Our Lady of Mercy High School reads, "Welcome."
It’s one indication of how the school has extended a welcome during the 2011-12 school year to more than two dozen international students, including many from China.
At the start of the school year, Our Lady of Mercy had 29 international students, and at mid-year, the school brought in eight more: five from China, one from South Korea, and two from Chile as part of a short-term exchange program.
Mercy has always had an outreach to international students and has long welcomed refugees and migrants, but in 2010-11, it had only six international students, said Heather Boyle, Mercy’s international coordinator and English as a second language teacher, who was hired in 2011 to build the international program.
The school is not alone in bringing more international students to its halls this year. In January, Bishop Kearney High School welcomed 22 students from China in grades 8 to 11, said Fred Tillinghast, director of admissions and the international program. He said months and months of planning has been done to welcome the students into the school community and into their host families, who commit to at least a year of hosting.
"Students are coming over with the intent to stay to term to graduate," Tillinghast said, contrasting it with exchange programs, through which students study abroad for a year but would typically not receive credit for that year of study. "They hope to go on to American colleges and universities. These students looked at high schools and colleges around the country, but they chose Kearney because of what we offer: a 21st century curriculum and a laptop for every student."
Aquinas Institute also more than doubled its international student population in 2011-12, with eight international students arriving in August and two more starting in January, said Joseph B. Knapp, director of admissions and public relations for the school. In 2010-11, the school had four international students, and the year before that it had one, he said.
Boyle said the growth of Mercy’s international program took place after the administration was approached by an agency that offered to screen candidates and coordinate the study-abroad program. Mercy was tasked with finding host families to place the students, and Boyle also interviewed potential applicants via a video-conferencing service.
Once the students arrived at Our Lady of Mercy, Boyle provided support to teachers, host families and the international students, who pay tuition and room and board and who fill seats still empty after registration for local students has ended, she said. Most are aiming to attend college in the U.S.
"Their goal is to graduate from Mercy," Boyle said.
Boyle said the international students’ presence has been a motivating factor for the American students, who recognize that their international counterparts are studying the same subjects as them — in a second, third or fourth languages.
"Not only is it impressive, but it also helps (American students) think, ‘They can achieve that and we are struggling just to say a sentence in Spanish,’" said Ginny Lenyk, director of marketing and communications at Mercy.
Additionally, both teachers and students appreciate the diverse perspective that the international students bring, said Boyle, who has taught English as a second language in Ecuador, Los Angeles, Chile and Uganda.
"Vanessa" Ying Yuchen, 14, a freshman who has been studying English since she was 4 years old, said she was drawn to Mercy’s international program because of the extracurricular activities she could take part in in America and the opportunity to choose her classes. Now she is a member of the school’s choir and helps lead student tours at the school.
Yet she found living in America has been a lifestyle adjustment. Since she previously lived at a boarding school, she was not used to doing chores, and she said she misses living and spending all day with her classmates.
"I really miss my classmates at boarding school," she said.
She said she also has had to work hard in religion class, since she does not come from a religious background.
"I get better for my reading and learn more about other religions," Vanessa noted.
"Crystal" Chen Meini, 17, a junior, who likewise does not come from a religious background, said her morality class helped her look at such topics as war in a new light.
"At first I was confused what the teacher was talking about (in morality class)," Crystal said. "But the things the teacher did made you get into it."
In her free time, Crystal enjoys playing video games and watching her oldest host sister play on the basketball team at Alfred University. Crystal and "Libby" Ip Ching Lam, 16, a junior, also have joined the school’s boxing club.
"I came here because the better colleges are in the U.S.," said Libby, who previously studied at Catholic and other Christian schools in Hong Kong and Australia.
Libby said although she has two younger brothers back at home in Hong Kong, she always dreamed of having little sisters. Now, thanks to her host family, she has four sisters, ages 14, 12, 10 and 8, who have made their own sacrifices to welcome a new older sister.
"One of them gave up her bedroom for (Libby)," Boyle said.
Living with a host family required some adjustment at first, Libby said.
"It was kind of awkward for the first week, but after a few weeks, we got along and are really close," Libby said. "They are the only family we have in Rochester, and they are very nice and kind to me and helped me a lot."
Libby said she also has been warmly welcomed by students at Mercy. On the first day of school, students immediately invited her to sit with them in the cafeteria at lunchtime, she said. Crystal noted a girl in her homeroom went out of her way to help her find a classroom.
Boyle and Lenyk said they were glad to hear that the school’s welcome also was coming from the students.
"There is an expectation here and in our culture that these girls are welcoming and warm, and they do tend to nurture someone who needs a little extra TLC (tender loving care)," Lenyk said.