Bloomington students visit China Print
Written by Julie Zenz, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

St. Mary, Bloomington China Trip
A group from St. Mary School, Bloomington, recently toured the Great Wall of China as part of a student exchange to the country.  Pictured in the left photo from left are: Laura and Anna Tolle, Mel Mergen, Margie Duwe, Julie and Katelyn Zenz, and Carolyn Tolle. (Contributed photo)

BLOOMINGTON -- This summer, students from St. Mary School in Bloomington and others traveled to China as part of a school exchange with Shijiazhuang Middle School Number 40.

The goal of this program was to create unique friendships and positive connections with others and to bring a global experience to students in a positive setting.

First group to visit China

Laura Tolle and her daughters Anna and Carolyn, Margie Duwe, Katelyn Zenz, Mel Mergen, and Julie Zenz lived with families and traveled with students in China as the first group from St. Mary School to visit China.

"We just went with whatever was put in front of us," said Julie Zenz, principal of St. Mary School.

It can be intimidating to place yourself in the hands of people you barely know, with little or no ability to speak the language, and remain open to unfamiliar food, a city of more than 10 million people, and communicate using 14-year-old interpreters.

We created strong bonds in a short amount of time with a partnership between a huge urban school and a small rural Catholic school.

"We are committed to creating opportunities for students to experience the world first hand at St. Mary's," said Ms. Zenz.

China was closed to the U.S. for many years and when the opportunity to establish an exchange program and friendship between schools presented itself, the choice was obvious.

Exchanges are an affordable way to travel and experience culture.

Once airfare is covered by the traveler, the receiving host family offers their guest a room to stay in, food, and a variety of typical family experiences.

Welcoming students to the U.S.

Laura and Darren Tolle from Mt. Hope have welcomed three students to their family farm.

Two of their seven children traveled to China for the first time to stay with the families of students they hosted in the past.

Anna, who is an alum of St. Mary School, has maintained a close friendship with Susan, who is now attending high school in China with dreams of becoming a medical doctor.

Carolyn, a seventh grader at St. Mary, stayed with Lily, who had a vivid memory of watching the birth of a calf during her visit to their farm.

The girls blended easily into their family according to Laura, who teaches music and physical education at St. Mary.

"I plan to incorporate ideas from our visit into my classes next year; the trip was an incredible experience," she said.

Visiting China

Visiting Chinese museums with middle school interpreters was a great memory for Margie Duwe, who teaches religion and science at St. Mary.

The students were very engaging and eager to share their history, culture, and experiences according to Miss Duwe, who is excited to return to China again.

"I didn’t have a preconceived idea about what to expect in China," according to Katelyn Zenz, whose family has hosted a student in the past. “My host family and their daughter Jane were generous, kind, and fun to live with.”

She joined their family members on a five-hour hike in the mountains that looked like rock canyons in the southwestern U.S.

It was a nice break from the busy traffic and noise of the city.

Mel Mergen enjoyed the overnight trip to Xian on the train with a group of students and teachers.

"It was nice to really have time to get the know the kids and their families," she said.

She can't wait to invite the next group of visiting teachers and students to the farm where she lives with her husband David in Glen Haven.

More on the exchange

The exchange was established in 2012 by principals Yunghong Li and Julie Zenz with the help of the Wisconsin Department of International Education and the China Exchange Program.

Since that time, families from St. Mary School have hosted students and teachers for several weeks each fall.

According to Hou Jianguo, director of International Education in Hebei, St. Mary School will be included in the U.S. State Department’s list of 1000 successful school exchanges between the U.S. and China.

It is important for our schools to learn from each other and to experience daily life in a family setting. These exchanges are profoundly life-changing for students in positive ways.

Julie Zenz is the principal at St. Mary School, Bloomington.


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