By Jake Lawson

This summer, a few Sonoma Academy students returned to campus in July to work at the Sonoma Academy Summer International Institute, a summer camp for international students ages 10-17 from China. The institute is an English immersion program designed to help international students learn more about not only the English language, but also American culture and what it’s like to go to high school in America.

    “It wasn’t meant to be a camp; it was a learning experience,” said Margie Pugh, Director of Student Support and head of the institute. “The whole program was based on trying new things and experiencing [American] culture, not on how well the students could speak the language. We really wanted to emphasize that there were no grades and that everything we did was meant for learning.”

    There are many differences between Chinese and American culture, but our schooling systems are particularly different from one another. Here at SA, a typical day lasts from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., with a 40-minute lunch break. In China, a typical school day runs from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., with a two-hour lunch break. It is also typical for students to have “evening sessions” of school until 9 p.m. or even as late as 11 p.m.

    “The program was specifically directed towards students who were considering studying in America and had begun to learn a bit of English. Their levels of speaking ability varied a lot, but for a lot of them, you could tell they really liked it here,” said Pugh. “One girl in particular told me about how bad she wanted to come here to SA just after the first week. She told me about how hard it was back home and how much pressure there was to get good grades. She seemed really happy to be in a more relaxed place.”

    Three students from the institute, Ray Ling, Vanessa Xu and Felix Nie, began school as freshmen at SA shortly after the program ended. The rest of the students returned home to China with their teacher. All of the students were interviewed briefly at the end of the program, and all of them expressed their positive feelings towards the program. Ray, Vanessa and Felix said they were excited to be attending SA in the fall.

    “Overall, the program was a huge success,” said Pugh. “There were some bumps in the road, since it was the first year, but it went even better than I was expecting. I had the dream team working with me, and it made it a really memorable few weeks. We definitely plan to continue the Summer Institute in the future, but I’m sure this year will stick in my brain for a long time.”

    The team of students working at the camp consisted of three Teacher’s Assistants: seniors Caleb Richards, Lailah Meyer-Long and Crisitian Isbrandtsen, and three Support Staff: seniors Sarah Maliarik, Jake Lawson, and junior Audrey von Raesfeld. The teachers in the program were Suzanna Luttrell, Cassidy Brown, Benjamin Mertz, Brandon Spars and Eric Moes. Daily English lessons were taught by Suzanna in the morning, and in the afternoon students met with either Cassidy, Benjamin or Eric to take science, music or geology, respectively. Brandon made an appearance every Friday to share stories and help the students learn new vocabulary. The TAs and Support Staff helped facilitate games and activities, and assisted the teachers with their respective subjects. On Wednesdays, the students traveled to different locations in the area to learn more about the history of Northern California. Destinations included Jack London State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore.

    “The students were apprehensive and pretty scared of being judged at first,” said summer TA Cristian Isbrandtsen. “It was particularly hard to get them to open up to us because they all spoke the same first language, and they could easily communicate with each other and not us. But as the days and weeks progressed, it was amazing to see them come out of their shells. I think the Summer Institute was a huge success, and will continue to help international students in future years.”