SWANTON – These past two weeks, students from Missisquoi Valley Union High School (MVU) saw their world grow a little larger as they welcomed students from China as a part of the high school’s inaugural SPIRAL Summer Camp.

Chinese students, mostly from middle schools in Shandong Province in eastern China, were paired with MVU peer advisors, who they’d spend the week with as they participated in MVU summer programs and toured colleges in Burlington and farms in Franklin County.

According to MVU’s Ashley Bowen, who oversaw the high school’s SPIRAL camp, things mostly went off without a hitch, despite the occasional programming hang-up or language barrier.

“It’s worked out really well,” Bowen said. “Things are going better than I could imagine – it’s fun to see how people can communicate without language.”

Two groups of students, one hailing from Zibo and the other from Dongying, were divided between the weeks. The Zibo group left shy of a week ago, just as the 16-student class from Dongying’s Yucai School arrived.

“There were tears when the first group left,” Bowen said. “[Chinese students] kept coming off the bus to hug their host families goodbye… We had to tell the bus driver to drive away.”

At the time of the Messenger’s visit to MVU’s SPIRAL camp, the group of students from Yucai had only spent a few days in Franklin County. Already friendships had started forming between Chinese and American students though – at least one interview was delayed because a mixed group of students were too distracted by conversation and walked past the Messenger’s reporter.

“I think it’s important to note that these girls have known each other for three days,” Bowen said before whistling the students down.

That group of students, made up of MVU’s Alexis Hulbert, Ruth and Anna Breuckner, and Cassandra Bittner, as well as Yucai’s Shao Ruiyang, Ma Yifei and Cheng Yihang, met with the Messenger during the program’s lunch and shared a few thoughts on their time together.

“I think it’s been a lot of fun,” Bittner said. “The kids this week are just happy and excited.”

“It’s been fun making new friends,” Ruth Breuckner added.

“The girls from last week have been calling us a lot,” Anna Breuckner said.

“Like every day,” Hulbert confirmed.

When asked about the United States, the Chinese students noted a few thoughts they had about the U.S. before arriving, including that, according to Ma, “we thought it’d be dangerous.”

But while they said news stories coming out of the United States mean those fears can never really subside, she and her Yucai classmates agreed: “It’s fantastic.”

They talked primarily about their school situation, where MVU seemed more relaxed than its larger, high-pressured counterparts in Dongying. Ma explained that there were 43 students in their class, noticeably larger than the handful of students in the SPIRAL camp.

“Every student is very happy,” Cheng said. “Parents aren’t angry about students’ grades and there isn’t as much pressure.”

“Everyone that’s come here has said… they’re constantly doing schoolwork,” Hulbert said. “None of the girls have said they have free time… When we told them we only had to be here from 8 to 2, they said ‘What?!’”

Ma said their school days in China finished at 6:30 p.m. and that homework could keep them up until midnight, inspiring gasps from her American peer advisors.

“You’re younger than us!” Bittner said toward the Chinese students.

They also talked very briefly about their home city: Dongying, an industrial city on the Bohai Sea with an urban population of 700,000 and a larger administrative area home to 2 million people.

“It’s a very small city,” Ma laughed.

The girls all said they were excited for the chance to meet people from another country, with the MVU students adding that the exchange had another context in light of America’s contemporary politics.

“I feel like we’re lacking that in today’s age,” Bittner said. “There just seems to be a lack of understanding for other cultures. With things that have been said and such, I feel like people have become more scared and more paranoid of certain things.

“But when you come here and meet you guys,” she continued, motioning toward Ma, Cheng and Shao. “You guys are super fun, and even if we can’t always understand each other… I feel like this is good for people.”

“It’s nice to have them become a part of our family,” Anna Breuckner agreed. She and Ruth were also a part of the host family that housed the three Chinese girls – plus one more – during their stay in Vermont.

They also said that the program’s helped convince them to one day travel to China to “see everyone again.”

“My mom said if they’re coming to China, she’d be happy for them to live in our home,” Ma interjected with a smile.

“That’s what she told us yesterday!” Hulbert said before clarifying “We talked to her mom yesterday.”

“If they are here, they can learn more.”

Su Xiaorui, a teacher from Yucai that travelled with the visiting students, was excited that the students were able to come to America.

According to Su, when Chinese students study the United States, they really only study the language and a little bit about the culture. In coming to the United States, she continued, they were offered a chance to use that language and actually learn about the country firsthand.

“Talk is different from experience, so we learned a lot here,” Su said. “To know more about the world, not just their school, their city, their country… if they are here, they can learn more.”

Su saw it as a learning experience for herself, too. This time with the SPIRAL program represented only her second time in the United States and was the furthest she’s been from one of the country’s larger cities.

“When I came here, I saw that even in the same country, there are lots of differences,” she said.

Bowen said SPIRAL was a learning experience for her, too.

“They’re a lot more similar to us than I thought they’d be,” Bowen said. “We have a lot of the same things in common.”

SPIRAL, based out of Burlington, organizes several summer camps around the state meant to foster connections between Chinese and American students.

In Franklin County, Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax also has a camp program organized through SPIRAL.

More photos of the SPIRAL program will appear on page 8B of this weekend’s Messenger.