By Kelsey Durham
For the past three weeks, Sacred Heart School in Bayside has been home to nine extra students who have been given the opportunity to experience America through the eyes of their peers.
The school recently started an exchange program giving students from Korea the chance to spend the month of January as part of the Sacred Heart community, attending classes as full-time students and living with families throughout the area during their stay. The visiting students range in age from 11 to 15 and have been paired with classmates around the same age in hopes of making the transition smoother.
This program is the first of its kind to ever take place at Sacred Heart, at 216-01 38th Ave., but the school’s principal, Dennis Farrell, said it has been in the making for a couple years after the school was approached by a company called Eduus, which sets up exchange programs for Korean students to experience education in other countries.
“They asked if we’d be willing to do this during the Korean students’ winter break and it’s not something that’s ever taken place here before, so we had a lot of questions,” Farrell said. “But I was intrigued by the idea of our children meeting children from another culture and sharing that.”
After some research, Sacred Heart learned that the students would be given visas allowing them to enter the United States for the time they were in the program and Eduus did extensive searches to secure five host families that agreed to take in the Korean students for the duration of their visit in exchange for a stipend to pay for meals and other added expenses. The nine children were chosen by Eduus after an interview process and were sent on their way, not ever meeting each other until they arrived at the airport in Korea.
Each of the students has a fundamental understanding of the English language and has been participating in the class work while at Sacred Heart, and a teacher has been designated to work with them after school to help improve their conversational English. Although the students are currently on a six-week-long winter break from school in their home country, the chance to spend their vacation attending school in America is something many of them looked forward to.
“They were all very excited,” said Sunny Kim, founder and principal of Eduus. “They’ve heard about America, but now they’re here and it’s encouraging for them. They’re learning about how important education in America is.”
Kim, a native of Korea, started her company in 2003 after deciding that she wanted to help young Korean students understand what education is like in other countries. Her motivation comes from her own experiences with studying abroad when she was in middle school, and she now has offices in New York and Korea where she works to help place students in temporary exchange programs in several countries.
“I came to New York to study when I was young and I didn’t know it then, but I really realize now what a big opportunity it is,” said Kim.
Kim said her students have expressed how happy they are and how much fun their trip has been so far, even keeping diaries to document what they learn each day and the experiences they have. The group also takes trips to explore the area that include a bus tour of Manhattan, a trip to the theater and a weekend trip to Boston.
The students from Korea all agreed that everyone at Sacred Heart welcomed them generously and has helped the group learn a lot about the American way of life. The students have exchanged stories about the differences in cultures that they’ve observed so far and said they have enjoyed learning what life is like in other countries.
“At first it was strange, but everyone was very friendly and kind,” said Martin Lee, a 10-year-old who is participating in the exchange program for the first time.
Farrell said although the school was hesitant from the start because of all the questions involved, the program has worked out better than he could have ever imagined. Since the Korean students arrived, he said he has seen a great deal of growth in both groups of children that he never expected and believes the visiting students have brought out qualities in Sacred Heart’s students that show how caring they really are.
The eye-opening experience for Farrell reached its peak when he observed one of his students a couple weeks ago showing a Korean boy how to hold a football when it is thrown. He said the students’ willingness to help the newcomers has shown him what a success the program has been.
“So much has come out of this,” he said. “I’ve seen our students really reach out to these nine boys and girls and help them, guide them, befriend them. I’ve seen the best qualities of all the children really shine.”
The program runs until Jan. 31, when the nine Korean students will leave Bayside and head back home. When they do, they will take with them the experiences they have gained in their month abroad. Farrell said he hopes all the children, including Sacred Heart’s, will remember the important lessons they have learned about other cultures.
“They’re normal teenagers, doing normal teenage things, just like us,” he said of the older Korean students. “But they’re a group of students far more courageous than I would ever be and I’m very impressed with these boys and girls from Korea.”
Reach reporter Kelsey Durham at 718-260-4573 or by e-mail at [email protected].