Like a lot of kids his age, Dave Wu spends most of his time studying, playing video games, immersing himself in extracurriculars and planning for his future. The senior at Catholic Memorial High School is waiting to hear back on college applications to schools like UW-Madison and Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he hopes to study bio engineering or chemistry.

Claud Xiao, left to right, Lynn Wu and Dylan Yang are students at Pius XI High School, Milwaukee. They are among 61 students from China enrolled at Pius. (Catholic Herald Family photo by Ricardo Torres)Unlike most of his peers at Catholic Memorial, however, at the end of the school day, Wu returns to a dormitory on Bluemound Road in Wauwatosa, where he lives with dozens of other students just like him, who are pursuing their high school diploma a world away from their homes and families.

Wu is one of 150 young Chinese nationals attending Catholic high schools in the Milwaukee Archdiocese through the Wisconsin International Academy exchange program. The students are here on F-1 visas, which denotes their intention of obtaining an American high school diploma, and allows them residency for all four years of their secondary education, as opposed to the J-1 visa, which only allows for a limited exchange program.

Students live in own dormitory

The majority of the students live at the former Bluemound Gardens Restaurant and Days Inn and travel by private bus to school each day. WIA purchased the properties and utilize them as their campus and dormitory, embarking on a renovation that included a new roof and indoor basketball court. There is tutoring help on-site, as well as organized weekend activities and volunteer opportunities.

A small percentage of the students participate in home stays after their first year, living with families or faculty members from their respective schools.

Wu, who has been studying at Catholic Memorial since his sophomore year, feels this is an experience he will build his future on.

“The reason why I come to the high school, maybe because of my mom – she wanted me to be with some American high school students and to know what they are doing in class. The education in China is totally different,” he said. “She also wanted me to apply to the American colleges, but she wanted me to study high school here first because she worried about me, like, she didn’t want me to feel strange about American culture.”

Holistic approach to education attractive

WIA partners with various agencies in the People’s Republic of China, including the government ministry of education, to recruit students just like Wu. The average yearly cost to their parents for tuition, housing, food, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses of life in the United States is in the low $40,000 range.

Most of the students come from a non-religious background, but the attraction in attending an American Catholic school lies in the rigorous – and yet holistic – approach to education, said Pat Hasek, international advisor at St. Thomas More High School, which hosts 29 Chinese students. This is St. Thomas More’s third year as a WIA partner school.

“What the kids have told me is there’s a lot more free time (in the United States) because we tend to try to develop theDavid Wu, a senior at Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha, hopes to study bio engineering or chemistry in the United States. A native of China, Wu has been studying at Catholic Memorial since he was a sophomore. He said his parents chose Catholic Memorial to allow him to learn more about American culture. (Catholic Herald Family photo by John Kimpel) whole person,” said Hasek. “When I interviewed some of the parents or talked to them during conferences over there, they want (their children) to be more involved in activities, things that they really didn’t get to do when they were there.”

Rick Carpenter, international student coordinator at Pius XI High School, agreed. Pius is hosting 61 students and, along with Dominican High School, which hosts 28, has been a WIA partner for four years.

“The first student I ever interviewed about coming to America … she said, I want to find out who I am, not who other people tell me I should be,” recalled Carpenter. “One of our (Chinese) students who graduated this year after four years at Pius, he’s an amazing artist, and he said, in China, you get trained when you’re younger, but as you get older they don’t take art as seriously academically.”

American high schools offer ‘competitive edge’

Like Wu’s parents, many Chinese professionals hope their children will attend college in America, said WIA dean of students Andrew Lutze. By enrolling them in American high schools, they are giving them a competitive edge.

“The way it works in China is, with the population being so large and there’s very few well-renowned universities there, and what that means is there’s a lot of competition,” he said.

In China, said Lutze, there is intense pressure on high school students to perform well on the gaokao test, which determines their eligibility for college and can only be taken once.

“Especially if the students are going to go into business or art … that’s just not really addressed so much in China. There’s not a whole lot of opportunity or avenues for them to pursue in those areas. So by coming to America, just by getting an American college degree, they have a leg up in China, if they want to return to China.”

Schools make recruiting trips to China

Representatives from WIA partner schools (including Catholic Memorial High School, where 32 students currently attend, and Martin Luther High School, who hosts 25) travel to China twice each year to interview prospective parents and students.

Catholic Memorial High School associate director of admissions Krissy Hartung compared the process to what American students experience while applying for college. Students are required to write a personal essay and take the TOEFL test, gauging their grasp of English. Their transcripts are reviewed, and the interview process is fairly rigorous.

“They have to already be proficient in English,” said Hartung. “We definitely have to make sure that they’re at a (high) level, but we understand that there are still going to be hiccups.” Once here, the students undergo English Language Learning (ELL) instruction sponsored by WIA during their normal school hours.

Language is one of most challenging aspects

The ability to speak proper English will determine a lot about the success of their stay in the United States, both academically and socially. Wu said the language barrier was one of the most challenging aspects of life in America.

Though he studied English for six years, “we don’t have English environment, so nobody speak to us, and our listening skill is not that good.”

“Even though they have to have a certain language proficiency to come over, they don’t understand the idioms,” said Carpenter. “I’ll always say to them, how are the American kids treating you? And they’ll say, very well, they’re very kind…(but) we don’t know often what they’re talking about. For example, with the Packers, football is not a big thing (in China), so they don’t understand the sport of football or baseball, so it’s hard for them to join in on a conversation on that.”

Schools chosen based on career plans

Students choose which WIA partner schools they wish to attend based on their future career plans. Pius XI, for instance, is known for its strong fine arts program, Catholic Memorial has earned distinction for its international baccalaureate program, and St. Thomas More’s STEM classes attracted students interested in engineering.

Jiayong Zeng, a native of Shenzhen in southeast China, and Xinyu Wei, who hails from Chengdu in the southwest, both chose Dominican for its reputation for rigorous academics. Both students are now seniors and plan to apply to colleges in California, hoping to study business.

“We both plan to go to the United States college, and compared to students in our country and in America, we’ve got more chance to get into a higher college easier,” said Weng. “We always think about the rank of the whole world, and the United States has the best colleges in the world, and we all know this.”

Both said they plan to return to China someday and feel that having an American college degree will be an asset to them there.

Schools offer intro to Catholic theology

Neither Zeng nor Wei have any religious background and report that the Catholic culture at Dominican is at times “confusing.” “I just don’t understand what they are talking about – when we went to the Mass, we just felt tired,” said Wei. “We just listen to what they are talking about (in religion class).”

Most of the archdiocesan schools have implemented a special introduction to Catholic theology class for the Chinese students after a little trial and error over the past few years.

“The largest majority of these kids, almost 100 percent of them, have actually no theological background at all, especially Judeo-Christian,” said Carpenter. “After the first semester we created a basic theology class that lays down the basics of Catholic faith and actually the basic stories that we assume kids are going to have coming in.”

Religion important, ‘but not in China’

Wu said he found the study of Catholic theology an interesting contrast to his non-religious experience in China.

“Everything is new to you, everything attracts your attention, and you want to learn what their religion look like,” he said. “It’s been new experience for me, and I thought it was fun. I talk with my mom about it … both my mom and my father, they don’t have any religion background, so they didn’t know anything about the Catholic. After I told them about that, they just feel like, wow, they made a good choice. Because they think I need some knowledge about religion, because religion is really important to this world, but not in China.”

Across the board, the international advisors at archdiocesan WIA partner schools feel their American students benefit from experiencing a more diverse environment.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we’re a diverse school,” said Carpenter. “We have a large African-American population, Latino population, but we did not have a large Asian population at all, and so it brings not only that to the school but culturally – most of our kids will never have a chance to go to China, most Americans don’t.”

“We want our students to get as much of that experience as they can at an earlier age, because once they get into college, once they get into their careers, they will be working with people around the world,” said Hartung. “There’s very few companies that don’t have clients that are across an ocean.”

“To me, having this program lives out the Catholic mission,” added Carpenter. “We’re giving kids opportunities they would never have if they stayed in China.”