When they arrived on Thursday night, they were strangers. But less than a week later, when the students from Nankai High School in Tianjin, China, said goodbye to their "buddies" from La Porte High School, they all knew that they would be life-long friends.
The group of 15 students and two educators from Nankai arrived at Bush Intercontinental Airport on Feb. 2 and received a warm welcome-complete with balloons and handmade signs with each guest's name-when they stepped off the bus at La Porte High School. Every Nankai student was paired with a La Porte student and his or her family, who opened their homes to the guests from China during their stay here.
The Nankai students and their La Porte counterparts, who had been e-mailing one another for several weeks in anticipation of the visit, first enjoyed refreshments provided by LPHS volunteers and took group photos in the LPHS commons. Then, they went home-or to what would be "home" for the following week--to experience life with an American family.
During their week in La Porte, they attended classes with students at the LPHS campus, where they held a snake in the life science lab, viewed the stars in the planetarium, watched the high school musical, Li'l Abner, and much more. While they were in class, the Nankai educators also had the chance to learn about the high school, meeting with the campus administrators and visiting classes to talk with other teachers.
The group also attended a Houston Rockets game, visited Discovery Green and Baybrook Mall, and went to Space Center Houston and the San Jacinto Monument. Their visit included tours of Rice University and University of Houston, followed by shopping and dinner in Rice Village.
During their final afternoon in La Porte, they participated in Career Day, in which they were paired with area business professionals in their career fields of interest. Students had the opportunity to "job shadow" their mentors at Beacon Federal Credit Union, Gulf Coast Educators Federal Credit Union, DuPont, Kuraray, Dianal America, City of La Porte, San Jacinto College and the LPISD Communications Office.
Activities during the week were sponsored by donations from the La Porte Education Foundation, Easton Resource Development, Lubrizol, Braskem, Dianal America, Kaneka and Noltex.
The final evening, the students and educators attended a farewell dinner in their honor in the LPHS Student Center. Speakers included Lloyd W. Graham, LPISD superintendent of schools; Stephen Barr, treasurer of the La Porte Education Foundation; and Todd Schoppe, LPHS principal.
Schoppe presented each visitor with an honorary LPHS diploma as well as gift bags which included a La Porte High School T-shirt and other items to help them remember their visit to La Porte. Nancy Li of Easton Resource Development, president of the U.S.-China Friendship Association, also addressed those in attendance. Li served as the liaison between the La Porte ISD organizing committee and Nankai High School in coordinating the visit.
Li Dezhi, deputy director in the Principal's Office at Nankai, reflected on the group's experience in La Porte, with Nankai English teacher Lin Lu translating his message. Kandice Wicke spoke on behalf of the La Porte High School students, and Xinmiao Chen addressed the group as Nankai representative.
Presentations included songs performed by the Nankai students as well as a calligraphy demonstration. LPHS cheerleaders performed the "Fight Song," and Schoppe led the group in the singing of the LPHS alma mater.
Graham explained that when he asked one of the students what he had learned during the visit, the student replied that the La Porte and Tianjin teenagers "have more commonalities that they do differences." Shortly after the students arrived, it was apparent that they shared many interests and quickly became friends.
The global studies program began as a project of the La Porte Education Foundation and La Porte ISD in 2008. The Foundation made a three-year commitment to fund the program, which culminated in a trip to China for students who were selected to participate. Prior to each trip, students participated in "China School" after school and on weekends to learn about Chinese culture, history and traditions.
In 2009, the first group from Nankai visited La Porte, with additional students and educators making the trip each February since then. As this year's visit drew to a close, Li expressed her appreciation for the global studies program committee members "for their leadership, vision, inspiration and hard work that guaranteed another huge success of this program."
"The generous support, sponsorship and participation from the La Porte Education Foundation, La Porte ISD, area industries and the whole community continue to inspire and encourage me and assure that the project moves on," she said. Li added that over the past four years, many people-including the Nankai and La Porte participants and their host families-have been positively impacted by this project, creating a lasting effect on the leadership of tomorrow.
Several LPHS graduates who have been involved in the global studies program are now working toward degrees in areas such as international relations, and many of the past participants remain in close contact with their friends from China. One LPISD family, whose "China buddy" now attends college in the United States, welcomed the student into their home once again during the Thanksgiving holidays, with plans for another visit during spring break.
"As the liaison, I have been so honored to team up with the most distinguished and visionary people on both sides of the world while working on this project," Li added. "This program continues to open the young people's eyes and hearts to the other side of the world as well as to promote peace, better understanding, and long-lasting friendships and cooperation."
David Knowles, LPISD executive director of secondary education, said that the district is privileged to have the opportunity to partner with Nankai through the global studies program. "I marvel at the quality of the interaction among our Chinese guests and their La Porte buddy students and host families," he said. "The Chinese students and educators warmed quickly to our school and community. The high school host students and families forged instant bonds with their China buddies.
"All this serves to create two-way bonds of cultural understanding, tolerance, and global awareness," he continued. "Our community benefits immensely from this Global Studies program on many levels, but primarily because it invests in our students' capacity for success in the global economy."