Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula children were treated to a special visit by students who flew thousands of miles to spend a week in their classrooms as a part of a mini-exchange program hosted by the school district in partnership with Tower Bridge International Education.
"This is our second year hosting TBI and their students," Gig Harbor High School Principal Tom Leacy said. "We are in discussion with the district about entering a yearlong program."
Students from China who are learning English, participated in the program and followed students at Gig Harbor High School, Kopachuck Middle School, and Harbor Ridge Middle School to their classes to share in each other's culture and language practice.
There were 25 students from China, 12 of the students went to the middle schools and the other 13 were sent to Gig Harbor High School. During the week they practiced English, made new friends and compared culture and school lives.
"I love American school," Chachi Zhao, 16, said. "I have been studying English about eight years. I like the classes, like the jewelry class, and I played the pickle ball with my shadow friend."
Zhao is from Hunan's Changsha where she attends school for 16 hours a day, with little to no electives.
"The atmosphere (here) is very relaxing and we can talk," she said. "In China, we can't talk. We just memorize."
She quickly made friends at Gig Harbor, such as Katherine Wallace, 17. Wallace is a part of the Gig Harbor High School student ambassador club.
"I am interested in learning Chinese now," Wallace said. "It's been fun hanging out with Chachi."
"I want to stay here forever," Zhao said.
Xia Jing is the Chinese students' English teacher and it was her first time coming to Washington. She, like her students, was excited to visit some of the region's popular areas such as Seattle, the Amazon corporate headquarters and more. They spent this week visiting tourist sites and large companies.
"They liked it very much," Jing said. "They have had a happy time here. The host families are very friendly and helpful."
Leacy said even though the mini-exchange program goes quickly, there are a lot of benefits for both the exchange students and the local students.
"We have Chinese language students who are interested in this program," he said. "But it broadens their vision outside of their world. It shows what it takes to host someone. The challenges both about language and culture."
Tower Bridge International is an education company that works to help create exchange student programs in public schools across the country.
Renee Johnson, a local parent, started working for Tower Bridge after spending time as a host mom.
"I loved it," Johnson said. "And I want to help others become host families."
Johnson stayed busy helping her own kids and taking the Chinese students on tours.
Leacy said this is the second year his school has participated in the mini-exchange. There was one exchange last school year and one during the previous summer. They are expecting to have another summer exchange. Tower Bridge sends students from all over the world, but having Chinese students was exciting because Gig Harbor has a Chinese language program.
"It was easy to find shadow students," Leacy said.
Leacy and other school leaders are hoping to convince the district to participate in yearlong exchange programs in the future.
The Chinese exchange students were given an official farewell from their new friends at Gig Harbor High School with a special closing ceremony.
They were serenaded by the school's jazz choir and gifted certificates for their success in class at Gig Harbor. Zhao even gave a speech on behalf of the exchange students.
"It is sad that we are all going to leave our Gig Harbor High School. We fell in love with the school, even though our time was short," Zhao said. "We will miss the people and classes. These courses can make students have career plans. In China, we don't have many chances to choose our courses. There are many students who are learning Chinese and you have good pronunciation. This was the most unforgettable experience — for not only me, but for everyone."