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From left, Tham Dechoponchai, Kevin Zhang and Stephanie Huang are three of 55 international students studying in archdiocesan Catholic schools this year. Dechoponchai, from Thailand, graduated from Marian High School and plans to attend college in her home country. Zhang, from China, graduated from Mount Michael Benedictine School, and plans to attend the University of Michigan. Huang, also from China, graduated from Roncalli Catholic High School and plans to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. DANIKA LANG/STAFF

International students shine in Catholic schools

Before coming to Mount Michael Benedictine School, Kevin Zhang was an atheist.

Zhang, an international student from Beijing, China, and Mount Michael senior, grew up learning Confucianist and Taoist teachings and had never been exposed to Catholic theology or Benedictine spirituality. 

“Here we have morality classes where we learn about all the issues that we will be confronted (with), things like suicide or euthanasia,” Zhang said about Mount Michael. 

“Although it’s Catholic-oriented, I was able to understand them with reason. I really like the system because it does match up with the traditions that our family tends to believe in. So I just went along in theology and I got this entire conscience that was very sharp,” he said.

Zhang, who has spent his entire high school career at Mount Michael, is one of 55 international students in archdiocesan Catholic schools this year. That’s down from about 70 students last year and in previous years because the U.S. government has increased its security requirements, making it harder for foreign nationals to enter the country, said Katie Alitz, administrative secretary and designated school official for the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office (CSO). 

A designated school official (DSO) is an employee of a school administration team responsible for gathering and reporting information on international students to the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). 

In order for schools to be eligible to enroll foreign students, they must apply and be accepted to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office that acts as a liaison between the U.S. government and schools interested in enrolling international students.

Currently, 28 of the archdiocese’s 72 urban and rural schools are eligible to enroll international students. In addition to Mount Michael, Roncalli Catholic High School and V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School, both in Omaha, and Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue each have more than ten international students on their campuses. 

Students must apply and be accepted at a particular archdiocesan school before they can apply for a student visa. Upon their admittance, Alitz, as the DSO, issues them a Department of Homeland Security F1-I20 form. Their families complete and submit the form to the U.S. embassy in their home country to receive a visa, which allows the student to enter the United States and attend school. 

China, Vietnam and Korea are among countries with the most students receiving the F1-I20 form from the CSO, said Alitz. 

CATHOLIC COMMUNITY

Welcoming students from all cultures and backgrounds is part of the mission of Catholic schools, said Michael Ashton, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Omaha.  

“Regardless of the reason why they’re coming in, we open our doors to them just like we would any child,” Ashton said. “I know there are priority enrollments for parochial schools where they focus on the parishioners first, making sure it’s available to them as a priority, and then past being a parishioner, it’s open to anyone who wants to choose Catholic education.”  

T.J. Orr, principal at Roncalli Catholic High School, said he looks at transcripts and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores when evaluating potential students. He values international students at Roncalli because of the real-world exposure they bring to his campus. 

“The diversity helps all kids understand that we come from many different backgrounds, yet when you walk into our hallways it is truly one unique, Roncalli family,” he said. 

David Peters, principal of Mount Michael, said the school’s high percentage of international students has cultivated fraternity among the young men.

“When I got here in 2011, our nonwhite population was 10%,” said Peters. “It’s now over 23%. Our families love the diversity. They love the kids coming from other cultures. It’s enriched us to a level that’s really hard to explain.” 

BEING BRAVE

Studying abroad typically affords international students opportunities they don’t have in their home countries. Huiling “Stephanie” Huang, an international student from Shen, China, and senior at Roncalli Catholic High School, discovered her passion and talents for drawing and design while taking art classes at Roncalli and getting involved in art club. 

Studying in the United States since her sophomore year, she was able to figure out what her interests were and what she wanted to study in college. In China, school was primarily directed toward getting good grades, but in the United States she has been able to focus more attention to extra-curricular activities, she said.  

“Here we can study while developing personal skill,” she said.  

Huang learned to take ownership of her education, especially when it came to overcoming social, cultural and language barriers. When asked how she overcame those obstacles, she said it is important to “be brave to speak, be brave to learn and be brave to ask.” 

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Tham Dechoponchai, an international student from Bangkok, Thailand, and senior at Marian High School, said it was easy for her to adjust to Marian because the students and staff were open and welcoming. 

“People are really friendly. Everyone is really inclusive,” she said.

During her one year at Marian, Dechoponchai acted in the fall musical, “The Sound of Music,” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the spring play, “The Birds,” by Aristophanes. Theater wasn’t readily available at her school in Thailand, so she was grateful for the chance to participate in drama in America and make new friends in the cast.

Dechoponchai will return to Thailand in the fall to study communication art at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. 

FORGING A FUTURE

With smaller class sizes, a wider curriculum featuring core subjects and electives, and extra-curricular activities, international students have found it easier to find their niche in archdiocesan high schools. 

In addition to running cross country for two years and playing soccer for one, Zhang has been heavily involved on Mount Michael’s newspaper staff since his sophomore year. It began with his interest in drawing editorial cartoons, and by the second semester of his junior year, he had worked his way up to chief graphic artist.

“It’s a pleasure to work with my team because I feel really accomplished,” Zhang said. “Every month we see the students open our newspaper. They will find an article and smile. They will talk to other people. It’s nice to know that it’s our work and our effort,” he said. 

In a smaller academic environment like Mount Michael, with approximately 60 students in each grade, Zhang has more opportunity to be involved and is proud to represent his school. 

“I feel like I have a better ability to make contributions because I like to give back just to be grateful. (There’s) definitely more opportunity for me to go out and win awards for my school,” he said. 

In the fall, Zhang plans to study biology at the University of Michigan. 

LASTING IMPACT

Huang’s involvement with art club at Roncalli led her to choose fashion design as a college major, which she will be studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall. 

Being an international student has helped her grow as a person and become a mature adult, she said. The experience has taught her how to live away from family, study independently and pursue her passions, she said. 

The education Zhang received at Mount Michael helped him grow academically and spiritually. Once an atheist, he said he no longer knows what he believes, but he is now more open to the Catholic faith. 

“It’s really good to live with a community with a concentrated belief,” Zhang said. “I felt the power of it so I will see if, in the future, I change my mind. I will leave (open) that possibility.”

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