SACO — Jingqi Tu is far from home.

The 15-year-old Beijing native plans to spend the next four years in Maine, studying at Thornton Academy. It’s the best way, he says, to improve his English and get into an American college.

“I come here to study. It’s very good for me. This education system is very good,” said Tu, who is here on an F-1 visa, one of three visa categories that allow international students to attend American schools.

He started at Thornton over the summer, and at first lived with a local family. In the fall, he moved into one of Thornton’s six dorms, which house most of the school’s 200 international students from 35 different countries.

Jingqi “Owen” Tu, 15, attends a Portland Sea Dogs game along with other Thornton Academy students. He is soaking up his American experience, including an outing to the beach: “That’s very new. I’ve never seen that before!” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

At Thornton, Tu is known as Owen, a nickname he adopted as a kindergartner when he began studying English. The name came from Michael Owen, an English former soccer star. Tu is one of 2,727 international students in Maine and one of 1.2 million international students nationwide, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Maine has been rolling out the welcome mat for international students at both high schools and colleges, particularly in recent years when Maine’s declining birthrate put financial pressure on schools and colleges.


Leading destinations for foreign students in Maine

More than 2,800 international students attended Maine high schools and colleges in 2016, and the vast majority have F-1 visas.

Here are the top destinations for the 1,396 college students in Maine in 2016:

Country
Students
University of Maine
587
Colby College
287
Bates College
131
Bowdoin College
93
University of Southern Maine
74

International students pay tuition no matter where they go – even to public high schools. Those attending college here pay substantially more, because they pay out-of-state tuition.

A year of residential student tuition at Thornton Academy costs $48,000, and international boarding students pay an additional $3,500 for English language classes as needed, and $1,700 for health insurance. At the University of Maine System, out-of-state tuition and fees costs $30,300, compared with $10,900 for in-state students.

There is plenty of demand from international students, particularly from China, who want to attend college in the United States. And many want to go to high school here in preparation for college. A few years at a high school, the thinking goes, can both fine-tune their English skills, get them acclimated to American culture and improve their chances of getting accepted at a university.

Owen said he plans to go to a university in the U.S. – Harvard, he hopes – and is considering pursuing physics or biology. Or both.

“I want to apply to university or college in America,” he said. “I might change my dream school. … I will try my best.”

For now, Owen is soaking up all the new experiences. Just the 80-acre campus, with its new labs, athletic facilities and a 500-seat auditorium, is a marvel to him.

“In China, school is not big. There are not a lot of flowers,” he said, motioning to the large grassy area and flowerbeds outside the window of Thornton’s cafeteria. “There is just a building and a playground. So a lot of things are new. Like the cafeteria. In China, we don’t have cafeteria. We eat a box meal in the classroom.”

As part of its program, Thornton Academy has regular outings for its international students. Owen went to his first baseball game this summer, and went candlepin bowling. He said he began to understand the rules of baseball by the end of the Sea Dogs game, but the bowling surprised him.

He’d been bowling before but “not with the little ball,” he said, cupping his hands to indicate the size of the candlepin ball.

An outing to the beach was fun – “That’s very new. I’ve never seen that before!” – and he’s looking forward to hiking.

“There’s no mountains in Beijing. It’s just a very big city,” he said.

And he’s also getting a chance to meet other international students at Thornton.

“Just this week, I made a new friend from Greenland,” Owen said. “We play table tennis, basketball. We talk with English.”


F-1 visa holders in Maine: top 5 countries of origin

Here are top countries of origin for the 1,414 high school level international students in Maine in 2016:

Country
Students
China
687
Vietnam
94
South Korea
74
Spain
50
Canada
33

International student visas come in three types: The most common is the F-1 visa, used by about 95 percent of full-time students attending traditional schools; the J-1 visa, which is used mainly for summer workers and campus counselors, but can also include students; and the M-1 visa, which is for vocational students.

Most international high school students like Owen tend to go to private schools because the F-1 visa is only good for one year at a public school, but can be used for multiple years at a private school.

Maine’s town academies, which are the local schools for the host town’s children but charge tuition for other students, are considered private and attract most of the international secondary students in Maine. In higher education, the University of Maine enrolls the most international students, the result of a campaign to enroll more international students to increase revenue.

With fall sports underway, Owen is on the school’s junior varsity soccer team, which has another student from China and one from Mexico City. The varsity team has two students from the Czech Republic, one from Italy and one from Mexico.

“Owen has made really good connections with the other guys in the program,” said coach Andy Carlson. When Carlson began teaching history at the school in 2000, Thornton had only about 30 international students, and hadn’t yet built the three dorms to house international students.

“As a coach, it’s just so great to see our local kids connect and embrace new (international) student athletes. Maine is not a diverse place, and for some kids, this is their first experience with diversity,” Carlson said. “It’s a mutually beneficial experience.”

There are concerns that actions by the Trump administration, such as restrictions on travel from some countries, as well as anti-immigrant demonstrations, may have a chilling effect on international students or negatively sway parents who are deciding whether to send them to the U.S. But international education programs such as Thornton’s can educate and counter that narrative, Carlson said.

“It’s a difficult time for international students to embrace the experience in the United States because it seems like the United States may not project the open-arms welcome that we would like. Thornton is not like that and Saco is not like that and I don’t think Maine is like that. But it’s a leap of faith for them.”

For Owen, when he’s not playing soccer or in class, he has plenty of hobbies to keep him busy. He plays trumpet and likes to draw, he plays cards and does magic tricks.

It’s too soon to be truly homesick – and he makes a point of having online chats with his parents every night despite the 12-hour time difference.

“My mom is a little bit worried about me,” said Owen, an only child. On weekends, he chats with his grandparents, including his grandfather, who taught him to play soccer.

It helps, too, that his parents understand what he is going through. They both left their hometowns as teenagers to study in bigger cities in China, and they supported his decision to study in the United States.

He will go home over the winter holiday, about six months after he left Beijing.

“I’m not missing home now, but I think I will,” he said. “It’s a long time.”


WHAT KIND OF VISA DOES A STUDENT NEED?

Foreign nationals can study in the United States using one of three temporary, non-immigrant visas: F-1, M-1 or J-1.
Generally, F-1 students enroll in traditional academic programs such as high schools and colleges, and M-1 students enroll in vocational programs that are shorter in length and teach technical skills such as culinary arts, cosmetology or aviation. The J-1 program is primarily for students from other countries who come here for a cultural exchange and often have summer jobs.

How long can F-1 and M-1 visa holders stay to attend school?

For public high schools, the F-1 visa is good for only one year. For private schools, or one of the town academies that have both local students attending for free and tuition-paying students, F-1 visa holders can stay multiple years. International college students can stay until their education is complete.
The M-1 visa is good for one year.

Do they have to pay to go to school?

International students pay tuition no matter where they go – even to public high schools that are taxpayer funded and typically do not charge tuition.
High school students must pay the school tuition equivalent to the full cost of educating them. The reimbursement requirement is mandatory and school systems cannot waive the reimbursement requirement.
International college students pay substantially more in tuition than a typical in-state student. At the University of Maine System campuses, like other out-of-state students, they pay about three times the in-state rate.

Do all international students need visas to go to school?

Citizens of Canada and Bermuda do not require visas to enter the United States as students, although they must present a valid Form I-20, which certifies their eligibility, at the time of admission.

How many F-1 and M-1 visa holders are there?

The F-1 visa is the most common visa used for education nationwide. The U.S. government issued 470,000 F-1 visas and about 10,000 M-1 visas in 2016. There are about 2,727 international students currently enrolled in Maine, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and most of those students hold F-1 visas.

Can international students have jobs?

Students with F-1 (academic) and M-1 (vocational) visas are focused on studies and have limited ability to work off-campus. The J-1 visa is a broader category that mostly is used for work-travel cultural exchange programs.


CHINA
In land area, China and United States are about the same size. But consider this: When it comes to population, China tops the United States by more than 1 billion people, making it the most populous nation in the world.

The population growth rate dropped dramatically since 1980, when the government started to allow each couple to have only one child, a policy that stayed in effect until 2015, when the number was relaxed to allow two children. Such limitations mean that a family’s resources are not stretched among multiple siblings.

China has enjoyed robust growth since the early 1990s, and the middle class there is surging as the economy adds high-tech and service industry jobs.

As the middle class grows, more Chinese parents are able to afford to send their children abroad to be educated, spurred by the tough competition to get into China’s top universities and the prestige of going to an American school.

Cultural reference: Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the United States. (But did you know that most of them feature dishes that reflect only Cantonese influences and are changed to satisfy American tastes?)