Two Worlds Unite
SAYA Ambassadors Visit Center Grove
Writer / Leigh Lawson . Photographer / Jim Eichelman
On February 10, a small delegation of ten travel-weary students and their teachers arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport. Their arrival marked the beginning of a week of cultural learning and sharing with Center Grove High School. Selected faculty, students and host families of Center Grove eagerly welcomed the eleven guests. These Chinese students were embarking on their student ambassadorships to the United States through the Sino-American Youth Ambassador (SAYA) program, which is a part of the Ameson Foundation.
The student ambassadors, selected by SAYA, represent their country and advance cultural understanding. The Ameson Foundation, a non-profit organization, seeks to promote mutual understanding between nations around the world. Originally, Ameson began provide opportunities for college students to be introduced to western universities with the hopes of easier integrations of those students when they enroll. Ameson later developed the SAYA program to introduce high school students to new cultures at an earlier point in their scholastic careers.
SAYA, a student exchange program, is available to students from both China and the United States. The short-term visit, occurring during the visiting students’ holiday or vacation schedules, allows normal studies to continue uninterrupted. They spend one week immersed in the high school environment by attending classes at the host school and staying with host families. The delegation then follows the first week with a week of sightseeing before returning home.
Wendy Kruger, the director of curriculum for Center Grove Community School Corporation, received an email from the U.S. Department of Education towards the end of December 2014 with an invitation for CGHS to participate in the SAYA program. Kruger and Superintendent Rich Arkanoff had been exploring partnerships with other agencies to bring foreign students from exchange programs to Center Grove to introduce multiculturalism to students. SAYA would further the goal of exposing the Center Grove student body to diverse cultures and broaden global understanding.
After receiving the acceptance notification from SAYA, preparations rapidly started. With slightly less than two months until the arrival of the student ambassadors and their chaperone, the administrative staff and CGHS faculty, led by Sandy Hillman, began to coordinate the details and arrangements. Hillman, along with teachers John Frank and Chris Blackburn, began to organize the week’s events and prepare the staff and students for their visitors.
One of the aspects to prepare for the visit was finding families that were willing to be hosts for the week. Many families made the decision to open their homes and welcome a student. The outpouring of interest gave Arkanoff and Kruger hope of exchange student opportunities and community support in the future.
Every family went through a background check, which is standard for the program. The assignments of Chinese students to families included the consideration of genders of visiting students to the host students. Finally, there was consideration to the families’ schedule so that each family’s availability was flexible for the visit.
The student ambassadors and their teacher traveled a great distance and had a few delays that shortened the visit, but it did not ruin their purpose or the excitement. The students’ home is the Jiangsu province where they attend an international school with emphases on science, math and history with school days lasting from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. English, is taught as a tool for success, not just a second language. The students select westernized names for use in China and during visits to the United States.
Each family planned various activities for their guest. The families took their guests to restaurants to experience a range of cuisines, even including a Chinese restaurant. After a few evenings of dining out, one student wished for a traditional American home cooked dinner. His wish came true with meatloaf, with macaroni and cheese. Some of the female students requested trips to the mall. The teenage hosts were happy to introduce them to the American shopping experience.
The accompanying teacher of the group stayed with the host family of teacher John Frank, who has traveled Asia extensively. Lui Jia, also known as Julia, prepared an authentic Chinese meal for the Franks and another teacher’s family. They enjoyed an evening discussing the differences and compatibilities of their countries’ school systems. Julia spent her school days learning of the programs and systems that Center Grove utilizes. She is anxious to share what she has gained from her visit with her colleagues in China. She plans to instruct other teachers on their trips with what she has learned here to further the benefits of the program.
The Allen family enthusiastically welcomed Xhang Qiyu, known as Elvin. Eric and Joyce Allen and their sons Nate and Ryan, were more than willing to be a SAYA host family, having hosted other students on short visits in the past. Elvin accompanied Ryan to class during Ryan’s normal school day. The student ambassadors shadowed their host student and a student from the CG Chinese Club. Elvin is eager to learn about the culture leading into his enrollment to a university from a western country, though he has yet to decide exactly where that will be. He wanted the opportunity to become familiar with the culture through SAYA so that when he does start college, the transition will be less difficult.
Elvin and the Allen’s had in-depth conversations on several subjects that are of great interest to Elvin, which ranged from politics to religions. Allen stated, “Being a host family was a great experience for our family to not only learn about another culture and share our own. It was an opportunity to share our family, faith and life with a different part of our world right where we live. With worldwide communication of today we hope to be able to continue communication with Elvin well past this week and into the future.”
Chris Blackburn welcomed the visit of the Chinese students. He teaches Chinese, which is in its first year of being offered at CGHS. Blackburn had previously studied in China during college and has a passion for the Chinese culture. During a Chinese class, CG students interviewed their guests. They asked general questions to get to know their guests and use their new language skills in an authentic way. The student ambassadors also gave a cultural presentation to the CGHS faculty with traditional songs, poetry and dance from China.
SAYA students, along with their teacher and host families attended a reception at the school administrative office. In attendance were school administrators and the school board of trustees. The reception gave the administration the opportunity to thank the SAYA guests for coming and the host families for their hospitality. President of the school board, Carol Tumey, expressed the gratitude of the board for everyone’s eagerness to make the visit a successful experience. Blackburn assisted Arkanoff by announcing the student ambassador’s Chinese name as Arkanoff presented them with a certificate of participation.
The week was eventful with new friendships created and establishing a better understanding of each other’s culture. Arkanoff considered the SAYA visit to be a success. “We are very pleased that this visit went well,” Arkanoff stated. “While the students had a rough time getting here, they all say they have thoroughly enjoyed their stay. Just as important, is the response we’ve had from our students. They’ve had a great time hosting the SAYA students in their homes and sharing with them their favorite foods, places to go, and other activities, as well as learning about their student’s Chinese culture. One of the goals of our first Strategic Planning Committee was to increase the cultural experiences available to our students. This visit was a great first opportunity of many we are planning for our students.”