Orem High School Chinese immersion trip to China

Orem High School students pose at the International Youth Summit this fall in Suzhou, China.

Alpine School District’s first set of Chinese dual language immersion students aren’t so little anymore.

The group, who started at Cascade Elementary School in Orem, are now at Orem High School, earning college credit for their work and forming international bonds.

The students’ first year at the high school has involved setting up the process for a sister school in China, along with a trip to the Suzhou Foreign Language School in Suzhou, China, for the 1st International Youth Summit.

“I think it was such a great success,” said Alan Heath, a Chinese teacher at Orem High School.

The trip was the first time a group from the school has gone to China, according to Heath. The school will attempt to do another trip next year.

Heath has taught world languages at the school for four years. This year he’s teaching Advanced Placement Chinese, which gives students an opportunity to earn college credit if they pass a national test at the end of the year, and the bridge class, where students who have passed the AP exam can gain college credits while still in high school. The dual-language students should have received enough college credit by the time they graduate high school to have earned a minor in Chinese.

Elementary-aged dual language immersion students spend half of their time learning in English, and the other half covering topics in a foreign language. As they transition to high school, the model changes.

Heath said there’s work being done to formalize Orem High School and the Suzhou Foreign Language School as sister schools. The schools already have a relationship, with Chinese foreign exchange students attending Orem High School for their senior year. That partnership, Heath said, will enhance Orem’s language programs.

The dual immersion students have also brought attention to Orem High School’s Chinese program and the benefits of learning the language.

“There are so many opportunities business wise, but also with cultural exchanges and with students who just want to experience the world,” he said.

The school’s Chinese students were able to test their skills when they traveled to China to meet with students from five different countries at the 1st International Youth Summit.

While there, the students were divided into groups, studied different aspects of Chinese culture by doing activities and made a presentation on what they learned — all while facing language barriers.

“We had to make these presentations, and we had to work together, but we all don’t speak the same language, so we had to get through that,” said Tamblyn Lonergan, a tenth grader who was a dual language immersion student.

It’s been a tough decade for the students. They’ve been in the same classes their entire lives, helping each other through classes where they might not have understood a single word from their Chinese teacher.

Lonergan remembers being a fourth grader and crying at the kitchen table about how hard it was. Her parents reassured her it would get easier.

“I am so happy that they made me stick with it, because I have all this knowledge I can take throughout my whole life,” she said.

Heidi Richards, a tenth grader who was a dual language immersion student, said it can be hard for older students to enroll themselves in a Chinese course.

“It seems so intimidating,” she said.

The trip included non-dual immersion students who are taking the high school’s highest Chinese courses. Outside of the classroom, the students were faced with understanding new vocabulary and working through different accents.

“I struggled for the first few days, and then I’d go up and start the conversation in Chinese instead of English,” said Edwin Nazario, a senior enrolled in a Chinese class at Orem High School. “It got so much easier.”

Native speakers in Suzhou tried to help the students communicate.

“People are usually nice when they figure out you are a foreigner who spoke Chinese,” said William Reyneke, a senior enrolled in a Chinese class at Orem High School.

The students met teenagers from around the world. For Lauren Heath, a senior and Alan Heath’s daughter, it helped humanize them.

“They are just like us,” she said. “They are teenagers, just like us.”