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At Pa. School, Thai Students Learn American Life, Language

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KINGSTON, PA.--What may have started out as another theoretical classroom lesson in acculturation for the recent high school graduates from Thailand quickly became a cross-cultural version of "Let's Make a Deal.''

On one side, driving an American-style hard bargain, were the Thai teenagers--winners of prestigious government-paid scholarships to study in the United States--who are enrolled in a new and apparently unique acculturation program here at Wyoming Seminary, an independent college-preparatory school just across the Susquehanna River from Wilkes-Barre.

On the other side was the teacher of their "American Culture and Society'' course, John P. Rorke, who is also the coordinator of this English-language and orientation program to prepare the 29 Thai scholars socially and academically for their postgraduate year at prep school this fall and for college next year.

The classroom quandary centered on the Thai students' ardent desire to receive less homework on matters cultural and more instruction on the vagaries of the standardized tests necessary for college admission.

In Thailand, it emerged, a student's test performance carries much more weight than it does in this country in determining university admission and the award of government scholarships. So the Thai students worry considerably about the American standardized tests they will face.

"We are under a lot of pressure to go to Ivy League colleges,'' one young scholar explained to Mr. Rorke.

After hearing their concerns, Mr. Rorke made his point: Cramming for the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the Test of English as a Foreign Language may improve their scores somewhat, but the best preparation is reading, and lots of it.

After several minutes' discussion, Mr. Rorke announced the "cross-cultural solution.''

"I will work next week on S.A.T. strategy,'' he told the students, "and you'll have a certain amount of faith that you can wait another week.''

Compromise, some Thai students told a visitor in a group interview earlier that day, is one of the many skills of cultural adaptation they must learn as they embark on several years of life in the United States.

As much as they earnestly expressed a desire to improve their already-strong written and still-shaky spoken English, the students also said they wanted to avoid the kind of social miscues that could sink them when they start school.

"I would like to know how to get along with American people, how to be one of their society,'' said one young man, Duangmuang (Teng) Chamchumrus. But, he said, "I think it takes a long time to learn.''

Thai Embassy Saw Need

The Thai scholars' program at Wyoming Seminary was born last fall out of the desire of officials at the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington for a cohesive acculturation program for Thai scholarship winners, said John R. Eidam, the school's dean of admission.

At the embassy on a routine visit to discuss the school's Thai students, Mr. Eidam said recently it was "just a fleeting thought that went through my mind ... perhaps we had the space and the ability to do that.''

For the first time last year, the Thai scholars arrived in this country as early as April rather than waiting for the start of prep school in September, said Nusarn Tasanapayak, a guidance officer at the Thai embassy.

But members of last year's group spent their spring and summer in many different locations, leading to logistical nightmares and a lack of cohesion in the program.

"We found that last year--while the program started early--it didn't work out well in terms of preparation because we sent them to too many places,'' Mr. Nusarn said.

This year, he added, it is "easier on the students and easier on us.''

And the students need as much easing as they can get, he said.

"A lot of these students haven't been to the States before or [have not] been out of the country,'' Mr. Nusarn said. "There has to be a need for English skills to be improved.''

"By bringing them in September,'' he said, "it would be too difficult for them to adjust.''

The students will follow the 11-week orientation at Wyoming Seminary--which, despite its name is not a religious institution--with summer school either there or at St. George's School in Newport, R.I., before returning to Wyoming Seminary for a wrap-up and a tour of the East Coast.

In the fall, they will head off to a variety of independent preparatory schools with college to follow in the 1994-95 academic year. The Thai government pays all the expenses through college and, in some cases, through graduate school.

International students are hardly new to Wyoming Seminary, which has a history with Korean students that extends back to the 19th century, Mr. Eidam said.

The school currently has 41 foreign students enrolled full time--apart from the Thai scholars' program--or 13 percent of the 310-student enrollment. They hail from several Asian countries as well as Spain, the former Czechoslovakia, Aruba, and Saudi Arabia.

And hosting the program felt right, said H. Jeremy Packard, the school's president.

For one thing, he said, it continues the school's tradition of offering "meaningful exposure and contact [to other cultures] for our own students.''

In addition, he said, the school's small-city setting and a modest boarding contingent--110 students out of the total enrollment--means it can offer a more intimate environment for international students.

And, thanks to a vacant dormitory floor, the school had space to take on 29 students in the middle of the school year.

"The great advantage of our setting is that we are able to tailor the acculturation program particularly for the Thai students,'' Mr. Packard said.

Macintoshes and Peter Jennings

The program itself, which began in mid-April and runs through the first week of July, not only bolsters the Thai students' English skills and their knowledge of American culture, but also instructs them in computers, which many of them have not used before. It also tries to fill other gaps they have, such as hands-on experience with science equipment.

Indeed, the Macintosh computers the students use to put out their own newsletter have proved so popular the instructor has to kick the students out of class.

"All of them, I think, are very tuned in to the importance of computer use and the fact that they need it,'' said Imants Gailis, the program's computer coordinator, who teaches computer and physics at Wyoming.

On a typical day recently, the students started their morning by reading daily newspapers and viewing a videotape of the previous evening's "ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.'' The Thai students would advise Mr. Jennings to slow up on his delivery of the news, Mr. Rorke noted with a smile.

Later, the students attended computer class, Mr. Rorke's American-culture course, and an English-as-a-second-language class, where they practiced brainstorming and writing in their journals.

Beverly Williams, an instructor at Kings College in Wilkes-Barre who is teaching the Thais English, said they are among the most advanced E.S.L. students with whom she has worked.

By having them keep journals and write in class to wean them from the dictionary, she hopes she can have them "write in a more idiomatic, fluid style.''

Part of acculturating the Thai students means getting them used to American classroom practices, said Mr. Rorke, the program coordinator, who is also the executive director of the Global Development Studies Institute in Millerton, N.Y.

The Thai students are accustomed to sitting passively in very large classes, so it is the task of the program's four instructors to encourage them to ask questions of their teachers and offer their opinions.

In his own class, Mr. Rorke emphasized a point by intoning, good-naturedly, "Be Americans! Be aggressive!''

Meeting the Queen

On the flip side, program officials said, the Thai students are more adept than American students at concentration and memorization and at working together--making sure everyone in the group understands a point before moving on.

However, Mr. Rorke said during a tour of the school, the Thais must learn to avoid accusations of plagiarism by insuring they do their work on their own.

In addition to academic pursuits, the Thai students have the chance to make excursions outside the school. They have already traveled to New York City to meet the Queen of Thailand--a first for all--and visited three Pennsylvania colleges.

Plans are set also for trips to meet some Native American teenagers from the Seneca Nation and to tour Corning Inc., the glass manufacturer, to see how a multinational corporation works.

They will also have to become more self-reliant when they begin a series of unescorted visits to a local senior citizens' center and face the bureaucracy to obtain a Social Security number.

In designing the program, Mr. Rorke said, he found little research to guide the school on the needs of adolescent international students.

"We have very little [information] about orientation or psychology of cross-cultural adjustment at this age,'' Mr. Rorke said. Much more is known about the needs of college- or graduate-level students, he said.

"In many cases,'' for international students, he said, "it's sink or swim at the prep school.''

The only other program Mr. Rorke said he could find with a similar in-depth acculturation mission was the Peace Corps' coaching of Americans heading abroad.

Consequently, this program offers a chance to do some research that can be disseminated to other prep schools.

"I think this particular program will be a model for all independent schools,'' Mr. Rorke said, where the numbers of international students has been growing in recent years.

Between the 1989-90 and 1991-92 school years, the number of students from abroad grew by about 16 percent, or about 1,292 students, to 9,287--or 2.8 percent of the students in independent schools in the continental United States, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.

International students are more prevalent in small schools, schools in New England, and those with boarding programs. Between 1989 and 1991, the number of international students at boarding and boarding-day schools grew by 21.7 percent, N.A.I.S. figures show.

'Rude Awakening'

Not all aspects of the Wyoming Seminary program have worked flawlessly, officials acknowledge.

An attempt to set up each Thai scholar with an American student "conversation partner,'' for example, failed in part because the Thai scholars are on a different schedule from the rest of the Wyoming students.

Indeed, one of the few complaints the Thai students have about the program is that they did not have very much chance to mix with the full-time students.

Mr. Packard, the school's president, conceded that dinner-table chitchat can be difficult for the Thais.

"Some of the American kids are not very good about making the effort,'' he said.

On another front, the students received something of a "rude awakening,'' according to Mr. Eidam, when their single-sex socializing--standard for Thai teenagers--was misinterpreted by some Wyoming Seminary students as having homosexual connotations.

But the Thai students had a meeting and seemed to work it out among themselves, officials said.

Just as the Thais need to "know how their behavior may be perceived in other lands,'' Mr. Eidam said, so too do both the Thai and American students need to learn not to make snap judgments about the behavior of people from another culture.

The incident "turned out to be a wonderful cross-cultural experience,'' Mr. Rorke said.

The social behaviors of the American teenagers have struck the Thais as odd, too.

"The public show of affection'' between boys and girls, said Athita (Tu) Komindr, "is one thing I'm still not used to.''

Over all, the Thai scholars have high praise for the orientation program.

To encounter all the newness and nuances of American culture and classrooms by themselves at the start of prep school would be much harder, the students said.

"This program is very useful for Thai students because it helps us adapt,'' said Kudatara (Don) Nagaviroj.

"If we don't have this program,'' he said, "we study separately in each school, we would be lonely, and we [would not] know who to ask.''

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