By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — While families throughout town may plans for beaches or ski trips this April school vacation, 10 high school students have a unique destination in mind: China.
The students will represent Andover, the Merrimack Valley and the United States when they spend a week at the Hengshui (pronounced heng-shway) School in China’s Hebei (pronounced her-bay) province from April 13 to 21, the week reserved for spring break.
Most of the students are enrolled in the high school’s Chinese language program, led by teacher Mei Lynn. A few others joined the trip after hearing about the opportunity among high school chatter, they said.
Ali Hale, one of the students going on the trip, said she has been studying Chinese for five years and is eager to put it to use.
“I just want to go out there to see and learn about the culture,” she said. “Learning Chinese is one thing in a classroom, but going over there is a completely different thing. There is nothing like going and getting hands-on and seeing it for yourself.”
The students also have a chance to build relationships that span the globe.
Michael Hanscom, one of three students on the trip who isn’t enrolled in the high school’s Chinese program, said he is going because “this is one of those things where, if I don’t do it now, I will never get to do it. If you have an opportunity to experience a culture so different than your own, you should do it.”
Hugh Smith, another student on the trip, said he’s going with the group to expose himself to new ways of thinking.
“I’ve never taken Chinese, but once I heard about this opportunity, I wanted to go just to learn about the education system,” he said.
Students have also made other plans for outside the classroom while in China. They’ll travel to major landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City in Beijing, and they’re slated to perform American music in a musical festival taking place at the school, they said.
“We have a city theme within our performance, traveling through America with our songs,” student Devika Ranjan said. “We’re kind of showing them America through its arts. With art, you don’t need language to communicate.”
At a basic level, students attending “can practice the language,” Lynn said.
But she and other officials feel there is much more to gain by living inside the culture for a week.
“You can never know how much it will impact their awareness, the opportunity to have a different perspective, to build a greater understanding, greater tolerance of others,” Superintendent Marinel McGrath said.
Jorge Allen, the district’s world language program adviser, said the students will be “able to make that connection from the classroom to the country.”
“The school becomes a gateway to the world,” he said.
Costs are covered mainly through a grant from the Asia Society’s Confucius Classrooms Network. With the grant, the trip was only $2,200 per student, paid for by their families. Lodging, meals and other costs picked up when in China are covered by the hosting school, Andover High Principal Chris Lord said.
The school is looking to build a relationship with the Hengshui School, allowing local students to stay there and, in return, inviting students from Hebei to come live with volunteering Andover families in June.
Those on the trip will leave America on Saturday, April 13 and travel over the North Pole to get to China, Lord said. They’ll leave China Sunday, April 21, but by crossing the dateline on the way back, they’ll land back in the States earlier than when they departed.