This school year, AHA has 45 international students. Many of them are preparing to enter US universities and colleges and see high school in the US as an important step in that direction. Their stories, however, are as diverse as their backgrounds.
This winter, AHA Technology Integrationist Gretchen Amigon sat down with Zijun Zhang, who has chosen to use the name Vector as his "English" name. We’re reproducing their conversation here so you can get to know one member of this important student group.
Q: Tell me a little bit about where you grew up
A: My family is originally from the South of China. My parents met in my mother’s province and then later moved to the north. I live in QinHuangDao, a second level city; one million population last time I checked; a city close to the ocean and the starting point of the Great Wall. When people ask me how many times I’ve been to the Great Wall, I tell them, “ lots of times.”
Q: Why did you want to study in the US?
A: It wasn’t my first choice. I originally started in a language school in Britain. My parents wanted to me to attend a high school in Britain -- my cousin was there in Birmingham. I studied and stayed there for ninth grade. I got admitted to a boarding school in Cambridge. Then there was an issue with my visa, and I couldn’t go back to Britain. Then I went to an international school in the South of China. Through an agency, I found a Catholic school; they told me to look up Holy Angels. Two of my friends from my international school were from Minneapolis, and they told me it was a good sports school.
Q: What do you most want AHA students to know or understand about you?
A: Chinese kids, my personal feeling, do want to get in touch with the local kids and have friends here. It’s just, most of us, we don’t know how. It’s not like all the Chinese are shy. We want to be good friends with you and attend parties with you. But personally, I don’t know how to do it. It’s not like you can buy a ticket. So when I get there, what do I do? Play on my phone or chat with someone.
Q: When you tell your friends or family back in China about AHA, what do you tell them?
A: I show them pictures. Snow. I show them the medal I got from one-act play competition, the pin from the National Honor Society, the letter jacket I got a few weeks ago. My mom came here with me so she knows what it looks like. I tell them what the teachers will do—about funny teachers, like Mr. Sawyer or Mr. Dimond. We compare what’s here with what’s in China. Most of the time, when I leave China, I hear that studies everywhere else are easier than China. But when I got here, I realized that if you want to get really good grades here, it’s going to be even more work than China. Here colleges will look at your recommendation letter. They want to know you from a teacher. In Chinese colleges, they just look at your test scores.
Q: Tell me about your host family experience. What’s the best thing about it? the hardest?
A: I’ve been in my home now for two years. They are a really nice family. I really like my host father’s character. He’s funny, goofy. He likes to make jokes. If you think normally, you won’t get them. He’s a musician. His studio is next door to the bathroom I use. Sometimes when I take a shower, I can hear the music. The host mom is very nice. The whole family treats me like I am family. We do a lot of things together. We took a road trip to California. They include me when they are doing stuff. They never leave me behind.
Q: What is your favorite thing about AHA?
A: The people here. When they pass you in the hall, they say, “Hi, hello, good morning.” Teachers here are very helpful. All the teachers have their own characteristics. I kinda love them all. I do like the feeling of being a team here. I was able to be the basketball manager. It’s an amazing feeling of the team together, of being included. I was behind the scenes so could see what was happening when they win or lose a match. No matter what, they stick together.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge at AHA?
A: The Mass. I’m sorry, I’m not Catholic, and I’m always wandering off when the priest is talking. It’s hard to focus; it’s not my religion.
Another challenge is getting started with stuff. When I got here, I had no idea about school activities or the weekly Thursday assembly. I had no idea of the schedules. Then they tried a rotating schedule. and I just got more confused.
Q: What have you been most successful with at AHA?
A: Trapshooting. In China, any ownership of guns is illegal. I never even saw a real gun. My host father showed me his collection. He took me to the shooting range. I took the firearms safety course and passed it. I was able to join last year’s spring trapshooting league.
Q: What do you want to do when you are older?
A: I want to do something with international business. I know two languages, and I can use that as my advantage. My dad wants me to do this. I do like business and money. But lately I have been thinking of being a police officer or in the military. But since I am the only son in the house, I have to carry on the economics and business. I do have a sister, but in Chinese culture, the son takes care of the family when you are older. I have to think of my career carefully.
Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: in College in the U.S. Studying. Somewhere cold, not in the south. I grew up in the north of China so I’m more used to the cold than hot.
Q: What would you say to a Chinese student considering coming to AHA?
A: He or she should come. The Chinese who are here already are totally capable of helping them with their questions. We love to do that. We can help them translate. Come here and make friends. Holy Angels is more than a Catholic school.
Q: What would you say to a Minnesota family considering hosting a Chinese student?
A: The host family shouldn’t have a great expectation of their international students, especially Chinese or Korean, that they will go out and socialize frequently. The Chinese culture is like mostly studying. When they get here, it’s like complete freedom. Don’t have great expectations that they will be the same kids that you see other places. Everyone is different. I do encourage families to host. It is a culture exchange. I share a lot with my family. They feel weird and interesting. They share with me, and I feel weird and interesting.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge, as an international student, in adapting to life in the US?
A: Before I came to the US, the news in China about the US is always about shootings at the airport. When I got here, I realized it was much different. The biggest challenge is just to try things. If you dare enough, try it. Try the food; try to go to a dance; go to a party.
Q: What can we, at AHA, do to improve your experience as an international student?
A: During school, there is nothing to worry about. We have a pretty good system. We find a student who can speak good English and Chinese to help with the course.
But, we’ve never done service work the way schools do here. In China, we have a little book that tells us to do service. But no one does. If it was possible for people with the Campus Ministry Team to get in touch with new kids to help them with service work, that would help.
The school needs to find ways to encourage international students to get involved in clubs and activities. They may find someone they like and didn’t know before. They should try to join sports, too.
Q: Many international students, especially Chinese students, choose western names when they’re in the US. Tell us why you chose Vector.
A. I chose the name Vector when I was in a summer camp at Eton College. They required us to have an English name, and at that time I was into a video game which has a character named Vector. That guy looked cool, so I took his name. Just in case someone is wondering: no, I had not seen Despicable Me when I chose my name.