Wahlert welcomes international exchange students
Six students staying with host families this school year
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
DUBUQUE — Each academic year, Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque welcomes students from around the world through its international student program.
Six students are enrolled at the school this year through the program – two students from South Korea, and one student each from Mexico, Spain, Taiwan and China.
“I appreciate their desire for learning and marvel at their courage for leaving their homes and families to experience the American lifestyle,” Wahlert Principal Ronald Meyers said of this year’s international students.
“Wahlert Catholic High School has been very supportive of international student participation during the last several years because of the rich experiences the students bring to our school community,” he said.
Megan Schultheis, assistant director of marketing for admissions at Holy Family Catholic Schools, Dubuque’s parochial school system, said she frequently receives requests from international students interested in attending Wahlert.
“I’m contacted almost every other week,” she said. “Sometimes it’s students directly. Sometimes it’s an agency or a liaison calling on their behalf.”
Schultheis said once an international student contacts her, she works with them to discuss the enrollment process and helps them explore further the possibility of studying at Wahlert.
Any student wishing to enroll in the school must possess a certain level of English proficiency and has to go through an interview with school guidance counselors (via Skype) to evaluate their language abilities and general academic readiness.
Before an international student can enroll at Wahlert, a host family must also be found so they have a place to stay while they are studying.
“We like host families to normally have a tie to the school or to one of the parishes,” Schultheis said.
The biggest challenge Wahlert staff face is finding enough host families to accommodate the large number of interested international students.
“We really need more host families,” Schultheis said. “If we had more families, we’d definitely be able to have more students.”
According to Schultheis, international students usually want to come to Wahlert for one of two reasons. Most are interested in the cultural experience and return home after one year. Others wish to graduate from a U.S. school and stay for an extended time as they pursue their degree.
Regardless of the reasons for studying abroad, Schultheis said the international student experience is a unique one as students encounter, usually for the first time, a new country and a new culture vastly different from the one they know.
“The students tell me it’s overwhelming,” Schultheis said, “but they are also really excited to be here.”
Even the weather is often something new to which they have to adjust.
“Some of them have never seen snow before,” Schultheis said of this year’s international students. “Now that it’s fall, some have already started to comment that it’s getting cold.”
For other international students, an additional “new” they encounter during their time at Wahlert is the Catholic faith. While many of the international students are Catholic themselves, others are not, and some come from countries where Christianity has a minimal presence.
Schultheis said all international students studying at Wahlert are expected to participate in prayer and go to church with their host family when they attend Mass.
The non-Catholic students “are super respectful of the faith,” Schultheis said. “They see it all as a positive, an opportunity to find out about another religion.”
Schultheis believes the presence of the international students at Wahlert is a positive for the faith formation experience of the entire student body. She said the international students who are Catholic serve as a visible reminder of the universal nature of the church. And the international students who are not Catholic provide an opportunity to share about the faith.
“In religion class, we often see students explaining different aspects of their faith to the exchange students who aren’t familiar with it. It provides them with an opportunity to explain what they believe and why.”
Schultheis and her family are hosting one of this year’s international students – a junior from China who will be staying with them until the spring.
“It’s been exciting!” Schultheis said. “Hosting a student has been a great experience for my children. … I hope we can do it again sometime in the future.”
Schultheis said she is always impressed by how much appreciation the international students at Wahlert have for their host families.
“They know it is a privilege to study in the U.S. and know the host families are opening up their homes out of the kindness of their hearts,” she said. “There is a lot of mutual respect between the students and the families.”
Schultheis said international students often miss their own families back home, but the school’s staff does its best to mitigate their homesickness.
“We try to make sure they are involved and are busy so they don’t get a chance to get too homesick,” she said.
Wahlert has been averaging about five to six international students per academic year, according to Schultheis, but she said the goal is to expand the program in the future if more host families can be identified.
In addition to the international student program, Schultheis hopes an international club will be established at Wahlert that will provide students with even more opportunities to learn about other countries and cultures around the world.
“We all have so much to learn from one another,” she said.
Six international students are studying at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque during the 2016-17 academic year. They are from the countries of South Korea, Taiwan, China, Spain and Mexico. (Contributed photo)