SACO – Before Allen Zhang came to Thornton Academy this year for his sophomore year of high school, he anticipated that “America was this magnificent country.”

Since September, he has realized that the United States is “pretty normal” in comparison with his home of Sichuan, China, but in the academics he has noted some differences.

Zhang is one of 51 students — 48 of them from Asian countries — in Thornton Academy’s boarding program, which is in its second year.

The large population of Asian boarding students drew the interest of the Maine Humanities Council, which held a day-long conference at the school Friday focused on East Asia’s history, culture and politics. The council gathered scholars for morning lectures and afternoon discussion sessions.

“It’s East Asia in a day,” said the council’s assistant director, Martina Duncan.

She said the idea for the conference came from a discussion with Foxcroft Academy, another private town academy in Maine that is bringing Asian boarding students to its campus.

She said both academies hope to integrate international students through cultural education.

The international students have added diversity to Thornton Academy’s student body of 1,400. Juniors Bryce Lamontagne and Becca Kieffer, both of Saco, have become student ambassadors in an effort to learn more about their peers from other countries.

Kieffer’s family is hosting one Asian student, immersing her in American culture while providing Kieffer with a closer look at her international peer.

“They are a lot more concerned about their grades,” Kieffer said, and get more stressed about standardized tests.

Likewise, the boarding students are learning about American culture. Shirley Zhao, who came to Thornton Academy last year from Beijing, China, sat in on a brainstorming session Thursday night with students who hope to raise money for an exchange trip to China in the spring.

“In China, we just let our parents pay,” she said. “Here, they have tons of ideas. Students here are more independent.”

Zhang has felt less pressure in his academics, enjoying shorter school days than he had in China, and has discovered a wide offering of extracurricular activities during his free time.

Mark Powers, Thornton Academy’s admissions director, plans to visit countries in Europe and the Middle East to increase diversity on the school’s campus in future years.

“As we grow, I would love to expose our day students here to different cultures,” he said.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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