DANVILLE — Schlarman Academy is marking a decade of hosting foreign-exchange students through the Youth for Understanding program — a tradition officials hope will continue well into the future.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for our students,” said Anne Sacheli, director of world languages at the Danville Catholic school. “It’s given them the opportunity to meet people from other countries and learn about different cultures. And when you do that, it expands your world.”
This year’s exchange students are Cato Kleijn of Amsterdam and Leo Gao of Guangzhou, China. Both are 17-year-old seniors.
Klejn’s host family is Bob and Zhanna Lehmann and their kids, Anna, 14, and Mark, 11. Gao’s is Ralph and Lisa Dunham and their sons, Ethan, 16, and Ely, 19.
This is Gao’s third year at Schlarman. He transferred to the school in the second semester of his freshman year and previously lived with Brian and Judy Larson.
He saw studying abroad as a way to meet new people. Kleijn became interested after hearing about her stepfather and stepsister’s experiences in Los Angeles and Uruguay, respectively. That intensified when she accompanied her mom and stepdad, a Dutch filmmaker, to Miami this past spring for one of his projects.
Kleijn already finished high school in Amsterdam in May. But she believes having a high school diploma from an American school — which is still being looked into, Sacheli said — will only bolster her chances of getting into her university of choice back home, where she hopes to study filmmaking.
While Gao is used to Danville now, he and Kleijn both said they experienced some culture shock when they first moved here, mostly because the community is much smaller than their hometowns.
“I like that (Danville) is a small town,” Gao said. “People can know each other where people really don’t know each other.”
A different world
Despite its small geographic size, he and Kleijn said it’s hard to get around because the school, their homes and other points of interest are spread out. And unlike many of their classmates, they don’t have wheels.
“Everyone has a car here,” Kleijn said incredulously. “For me, that’s kind of weird. (Back home), every family has a car, but they only use them to go outside the city. (In Amsterdam), everyone cycles, and everything’s really close. The grocery store is like a two-minute walk from my house.
“If I walked to the store (in Danville), it would take one or two hours.”
Kleijn pointed out several differences between Schlarman and her school in Amsterdam aside from the size. Her school back home focuses on the arts and follows more of a college-like schedule where students take classes two or three times a week on certain days.
“Here, you have the same schedule every day,” she said.
Kleijn also had a little more flexibility regarding being on campus. She said students were notified via an app if a teacher was absent.
“If they were sick, you didn’t have to show up that period,” she said. “Sometimes, we had three free periods in a row because it a chaotic day, and we’d all go to McDonald’s.”
Home for the holidays
In Gao’s school, students stayed in the same classroom the entire day, and teachers switched rooms. And while there was homework, it didn’t count toward your final grade like it does here.
And the classroom environment was more formal, Gao said.
“You had to raise your hand,” he said, adding Schlarman students may raise their hand but don’t wait until they’re called on to shout out their answer or whatever they want to say.
“He’s more polite than we are,” said Ethan Dunham, a sophomore, about himself and and his older brother, a paramedic.
“He uses ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ more,” Dunham continued with a sheepish grin. “My mom tells us we need to have better manners like Leo.”
Last year, Gao played soccer at Schlarman. This year, he’s been busy filling out college applications. (He’s thinking about studying computer science, and is interested in Indiana University, among other schools.)
Kleijn was interested in playing soccer but couldn’t because IHSA rules don’t allow high school graduates to participate in athletics. But that hasn’t stopped her from singing in the Danville Symphony Orchestra community choir. She’s also thinking of joining the school’s state-title-winning archery team.
Gao said he’s also looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with host families and other friends — and not necessarily because of the food.
“I like it,” he said of American fare. “But I really enjoy all the people gathering around, having food, playing games. I just really like the atmosphere.”