GROTON -- Back to school for Tianyi Lan and 11 other foreign students from seven countries meant traveling thousands of miles to a new school of teachers, subjects, and friends besides living with a new family.
"I want to improve my ability and be responsible for myself," said the 17 year old from the Xinjiang Province near Tibet, who, along with 11 other foreign students, is attending Groton-Dunstable Regional High School as part of a foreign-student program started this fall.
The diverse group of students, ranging from 15 to 18 years old, said they hope to improve their English speaking skills and experience American culture from a teenage perspective.
"Here, there are more options, and I can find out who I am. I love this school and my friends," Tianyi said.
"I came for the adventure and experience," said Steinar Skagestad, 17, from Oslo. With two months of school under his belt, he has had quite the adventure as a member of the boys soccer team that recently captured the league championship. "I like the smaller class size here," he said.
Steinar and Shicheng Xu, 18, from Xian (a historical part of China) live with the same host family. Shicheng said, "My favorite subject is math. The students and teachers here are nice," and he's hoping to show off his table tennis skills having joined the newly formed club.
According to the students, in each of their countries, the school systems are very different from the U.S.
Tianyi, hoping to attend university in the U.S. as a math major, said that in China a typical school day of 11 hours meant that she could not develop her own interests. Tingyu Du, 16, from Beijing, has similar sentiments. "There are more opportunities available here."
Desiring a new challenge and goal, Jean Perrissin-Fabert, 17, said, "It's totally different here. In Paris you stay in the same class (with the same students) while the teachers change." He already has a favorite class -- English taught by Mr. Adams -- and is looking forward to playing on the varsity basketball team.
The idea to create an international student program at Groton-Dunstable was initiated by former Superintendent Joe Mastrocola and Michael Mastrullo, principal, who said they were partners in the endeavor.
"My role was to help organize and implement the program so it was an enjoyable and enriching experience for the foreign students, our students, staff and community. I knew our kids would welcome the students with open arms," Mastrullo said.
Groton-Dunstable has partnered with Educatius International in Boston, which recruits students and markets school districts. Foreign students and their families pay Educatius a fee plus tuition to the school and host families receive a stipend, according to Pierre Ermanno, Educatius director of customer service.
At the high school, the program is coordinated by guidance counselor Mark Hennelly, international student adviser, as liaison between the students, school, host families and Educatius. Hennelly and the foreign students sit down together twice a week to discuss their experiences, questions and concerns.
In his sixth year as a high-school counselor, Hennelly brings solid experience to the program, having previously spent 11 years at the middle school -- eight as a guidance counselor and three as special-education teacher.
"Mark Hennelly has done a remarkable job managing this process and should be commended for making the international students feel at ease with this exciting endeavor they have pursued," said Mastrullo. "It is my hope this is the beginning of a long relationship with an international student program and I would like to offer the same opportunities to our students."
Bringing foreign students to Groton-Dunstable seems like a win-win for everybody in Hennelly's opinion, by adding diversity to classrooms, giving local students a global perspective and creating a memorable experience for host families.
"Several teachers have already spoken about how invaluable the international students have been during classroom discussions, offering viewpoints that are rarely heard," Hennelly said.
With the initial obstacles of starting a new endeavor hurdled and the program underway, Mastrullo says he sincerely hopes the students receive a typical high-school experience.
To make certain of that, Hennelly planned a September tour to Boston as part of the students' introduction to New England and has another adventure planned in late October to Six Flags.
With the fall semester in full swing for the teenagers, Hennelly reflected, "They have friends, play sports and are feeling challenged academically."
Jean Perrissin-Fabert said, "Mr. Hennelly -- he's the man."
Making up Groton-Dunstable's mini U.N. are international students: Anais Addad, Paris, France; Jean Perrissin-Fabert, Paris, France; Tingyu Du, Beijing, China; Tianyi Lan, Xinjiang Province, China; Vinh Pham, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Steinar Skagestad, Oslo, Norway; Shicheng, Xu, Xian, China; Ludovica Gruttadauria, Sicily, Italy; Thales, Vinagre E Lima, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Giulia Chu Ferri, San Paola, Brazil; Isabel DeLuna, Madrid, Spain; and Yidan Liao, Shenzhen, China.