Zhou Lu and Xi Lin play video games in the basement of the Aspen Hall dorms at Southern Oregon University Tuesday. - Jamie Lusch

Dorm Life

On any given evening, the basement at Aspen Hall in Southern Oregon University's Cascade Complex is abuzz with activity and sound.

A girl plays a Japanese classical song on a piano, while another student beats out a completely different tune on a set of drums. Two boys crouch on the sofa focusing all their concentration on winning a simulated soccer match on a video game.

Intermingled is a jumble of male and female voices, snatches of dialogue in English and Chinese and the aroma of Chinese noodles boiling on a stove.

It could be any college dorm, but it's not. The 25 Chinese students who live in Aspen Hall don't go to SOU at all. They're part of a new international boarding program offered by St. Mary's School, a secondary school of about 450 pupils in Medford.

St. Mary's created the boarding program to expand its global education for its students and offer an avenue for international students to improve their English and pave their way to an American university.

Most of the students in the program are Chinese because of St. Mary's special ties with China.

In 2008, St. Mary's became North America's first Confucius Classroom, a designation for high-school programs by the Chinese government-affiliated Hanban Chinese Language Council. Hanban, which seeks to promote Chinese language and culture, chose St. Mary's for the honor in part because the school already offered Mandarin instruction to its students.

As part of the designation, Hanban provided St. Mary's with a five-year, $50,000 grant, Chinese language instructors and free travel to China for some St. Mary's students and faculty members.

The occupants of Aspen Hall attend St. Mary's during the day, taking English as a Second Language classes, as well as high school classes, and live in the dormitory at night, with a teacher and two resident assistants who are SOU students.

St. Mary's junior "Sarah" Yunjiao Li from Beijing says she loves living in the dorms.

"It's like my home," she says. "I have friends who come from different places. We are living together like a family."

St. Mary's officials say they needed a dormitory to expand their international program because it's so difficult to find host families. Typically, the school maxes out at 10 host families, officials say.

By coincidence, SOU happened to have some empty space.

"Of course, partnering with a great school like St. Mary's was an opportunity we couldn't refuse," says Erik Elordi, SOU assistant director of family housing and conference services. "We had some available space, but it was also an opportunity to bring more international students to the Rogue Valley and expose our students and staff to them. It adds a vibrancy to the residence halls. It's a unique opportunity a lot of us don't get."

SOU charges the students the same as other student residents but sends the bill to St. Mary's, Elordi says. It costs $695 per month for a double-occupancy room and $922 for single-occupancy.

After classes, the St. Mary's students take the bus to the dorms each afternoon around 4:15 p.m., Li says. They have some free time until about 5:30 p.m. when they go to the cafeteria for dinner.

St. Mary's staff members even persuaded the cafeteria to offer Chinese dishes on occasion, says a jubilant Victor Huo, a St. Mary's junior from Foshan in southeast China.

Sometimes they skip the cafeteria, and some of the girls make Chinese noodles for everyone, Huo says.

"It's pretty nice," he says.

Jeremiah Lewman, a St. Mary's physics and math teacher who lives in the dorms to help supervise the students, says he had to recently establish study hours, between 8 and 11 p.m., to make sure students had quiet time when other students weren't rocking out the basement. That's a regimen university dorm residents are free of, says resident assistant Katelyn Denny, an SOU junior who lives with the Chinese students.

Unlike their university counterparts, St. Mary's students also have an 11 p.m. curfew, Denny says.

"They play the piano a lot," Lewman says. "I have to go downstairs multiple times sometimes and say, 'Guys, it's time for bed.' I leave and then someone else is playing the piano."

Some of the girls have formed a band and plan to play at St. Mary's April talent show.

In addition to living with two college students who are the resident assistants, the high school students mingle with university students in the dormitory cafeteria, where the Chinese students normally eat, and on the basketball court.

Corinne Brion, St. Mary's international program director, says she and university staff are collaborating on ways to promote interaction between the Chinese high school students and university students even more.

For example, they are organizing a Halloween event in which the Chinese students will trick-or-treat at the doors of the university dorms.

The exposure adds to SOU students' global experience, while giving the Chinese students a variety of situations in which to practice English, Brion says.

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