PRINCETON, WV, May 9, 2012 :  Students at Bluefield High School this semester have had a unique opportunity to learn about the world beyond West Virginia’s borders.  They have shared classes and hallways with five international exchange students – two from Germany, and one each from China, Australia, and Georgia. A sixth exchange student attended BHS briefly before transferring to Princeton High.

The students wound up at BHS by numerous pathways, the majority through a program called Youth For Understanding (YFU).  All are fluent in English.  Most will return to their home countries to complete high school, and several hope to return stateside for college.

Yicheng Lin, a lanky teen from Shanghai, had been to the United States several times but wanted to take a year out to study here.  “I really didn’t study very hard in my first year of high school, and didn’t do very well in math in China,” Lin said. 

Ironically, Lin was the top scorer in the Grade 10-12 division of recent Math Field Day Competition in Mercer County – outscoring all other students to place first in the division. “I didn’t really study for it,” he said.  “I just thought I’d have a try and see what happens.” 

“There is too much pressure in the education system in China,” Lin said.  “We don’t divide the math into algebra and trigonometry, etc.  We put it all together.”  Lin said the teaching strategies were about the same in each country but, in the U.S., the exercises and problems aren’t very deep.  “They give you the formula and then [the exercises] are straight down.  There are no tricks or corners, so it’s not a kind of study, too simple.”

Lin admits that he has done very well in A/B Calculus at BHS.  English literature and history have proved more challenging.  “You don’t analyze the literature the way we do.  The grammar is easy, but the way we analyze a passage is totally different.”

Another challenge has been leaving a city of 23 million for a much smaller town.  “I attended Yanan High School, one of the top ten schools in Shanghai, and I’ve traveled on holiday to Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Britain.” 

A novice filmmaker, Lin wants to attend UCLA to study movie editing.  “I like to make movies and I am quite free.  I take my camera everywhere!” he said.

German student Natalia Meyer also hails from a major city – Berlin.  Having just turned 16, she is the youngest exchange student.  In Bluefield since November, Natalia admits that homesickness has sometimes been a problem.  “It’s not easy on holidays,” she said.  “I don’t skype because I get too homesick!”

Despite missing her parents and brother, the pretty teen says she likes America better. “The people are much nicer.  They’re friendly and talkative.  People are supportive, and I like that.”  Natalia said she also likes the American democracy and government structure.

In Germany, she explained, there are only “part-time” sports – separate from school –no high school sports teams. “It is so amazing when there is a basketball game here,” she said. “Everybody comes!”

Academically, the program of study is more advanced in Berlin. Last year, Natalia completed ninth grade at home but is taking eleventh grade classes here and will return as a sophomore.

Justin Kornath, from the town of Kiel near Hamburg, said he specifically requested that YFU place him in a coastal region.  “Please give me the beach, I pleaded, but I ended up in the mountains.” 

Since arriving August 4, Kornath has been with the John Feutchenberger family.  “At school, it’s all wonderful,” he says. “Everybody is friendly and talks to me.  They say ‘Hey, German!’ when they see me in the hall.”

At home in Germany, Justin had completed his eleventh-grade year at a gesamtschule, a school for high-achieving students.  In Germany, there are also middle level and lower level public schools.  Justin has studied English since fifth grade, and will graduate after year 13. 

“Here the classes aren’t what’s really important for me,” he confided.  “What’s important is family, and to show all the people our culture in Germany.” Justin added, however, that-- from the beginning--he happily discovered that he had “chosen the right classes” at BHS.  After high school, he plans to attend cinematography school and become a professional photographer. 

Justin’s impression of American culture?  “Some of the stereotypes are true, some not,” he laughed.  “But the one thing I dislike is that [Americans] drive everywhere. At home, I cycle three miles to school each way and I really enjoy that.”  Justin added that, in Germany, gas is the equivalent of $3.00 per liter.

From Perth, the capitol of West Australia, Kiara Bishop is the most senior member of the group – and, unlike her German counterpart, Kiara misses driving.  Exchange students are not permitted to drive while in the U.S., and she dislikes having to rely on others to take her places.

Fortunately for Bishop, her placement in the United State is only for six months. “There are only four Australian students in the whole country,” she said.  “My best friend is doing this, as well.” 

Once Kiara returns to Australia June 19th, she will complete her senior year and graduate in November.  “I’m interested in Health Science and Physical Therapy, I think you call it.  I’ll attend Curtin University in Perth.”

For Mikheil Nakashidze, from the Iberian nation of Georgia, the opportunity to study abroad came via a FLEX Scholarship offered by the U.S. Department of State.  To qualify, however, Mikheil underwent three levels of intense testing, completing an enormous application and numerous tests and essays in English.  Ultimately, this young man from the city of Batumi, earned a full FLEX scholarship, becoming one of only 45 recipients from a field of 5,000 applicants.

First sent to a less-than-ideal placement in Colorado, Mikheil relocated to Bluefield where he is taking senior-level courses.  “I wouldn’t say American high school courses are easy,” he said, “but they are constructed well, so it is easy to learn.”

Nakashidze said schools in Georgia had about the same amount of technology as BHS. “Colorado,” he said, “had way too much!” One of his biggest challenges, though, was getting familiar with Texas instruments. 

Over Spring Break, Mikheil’s mother flew to the States where they were able to travel and sight-see together.

As a group, Lin, Natalia, Justin, Kiera, and Mikheil have found the students at BHS to be friendly but narrow in their view of the world.  As a result, they are sometimes reluctant to ask serious questions.

“They asked me if we had cars in Germany!” Justin said, shaking his head.  “I remember one student asked me if I had driven to the U.S. from Germany!”

Although formal speaking opportunities have been few, each of the five indicated a genuine interest in talking to student groups or other organizations about their cultures and experiences as exchange students.

“I would love that!” Justin said.  “I would love to talk about my culture!”

Justin Kornath

Kiara Bishop

Mikheil Nakashidze

Natalia Meyer

Yisheng Lin