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Draper Journal

Many Juan Diego Catholic High international students remain in Utah, devoted to academics during pandemic

Nov 22, 2021 10:42AM ● By Julie Slama

Juan Diego Catholic High alum Tini Mai, center, celebrated her graduation before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which left her and many of her international classmates to make the choice of staying in the United States and not visiting their homelands during the summer break. (Photo courtesy of Tini Mai)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Tini Mai misses the food at the restaurant next door and the noise of people bargaining and selling items in the market near where she lived in her bustling city in Vietnam.

“When I first came to America, the first thing I said was, ‘Wow, I can actually see the sky,’” she said, noticing that skyscrapers didn’t fill Utah’s skies, and then also remembered being introduced to snow. “I saw the snow they plowed on the street—that black snow, the dirty snow—and I thought that was cool and I almost ate that snow. It was the first time ever in my life that I saw snow.”

Mai came to the United States nine years ago, but she wanted to get a better education.

“I learned English here. The first book I read was ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’” she said.

After attending Redeemer Lutheran School in Salt Lake City and Christ Lutheran School in Murray, and living with a host family, Mai attended and graduated from Juan Diego Catholic High, after which she had planned to visit home the summer before entering the University of Utah. Then COVID-19 hit.

So, Mai stayed in Utah.

“I was scared I wouldn’t be able to come back for school and I didn’t want to do online school,” she said.

It was a choice that about 65 international students who attend Juan Diego Catholic High had to make. Some made the decision to return home to visit, but the majority remained.

Jim Dillon in Juan Diego’s international student department said with the pandemic, several countries’ government offices or embassies were not open, so there were issues with passports renewals or visas.

“We strongly suggested to the students that they stay, not because we don’t want you to go home, but because of COVID, you might get stuck,” he said.

Dillon said that the majority heeded the advice, but “a handful of them went home and sadly, they got stuck, and were not able and still not able to return because of the travel restrictions.”

The majority of international students at Juan Diego are from French Polynesia and China, but students also come from Mali, South Korea, Russia, Japan and Vietnam.

Although Mai hasn’t been able to go home since she arrived in Utah, she now lives with her older sister, who cooks Vietnamese dishes. Her parents came to celebrate her high school graduation with her before the pandemic.

“I’m glad I came here for a better education and I’m glad I went to Juan Diego. I wanted to go to a really good school, and my friends recommended it,” she said.

Mai said her mother, who is a devout Catholic, supported the decision to attend a Catholic school, but also one with a strong academic program where she could take Advanced Placement and concurrent enrollment courses.

“I liked how Juan Diego prepared me very well for college classes,” she said, adding that she’d like to be a data analyst and work for a nonprofit organization. “I liked the small classes at Juan Diego; teachers can pay more attention to students. We got to know each other better and you can just become friends with anyone.” 

Mai got involved as a student ambassador, was a part of student government, participated in art shows, competed in debate tournaments and played—and finished in the top three in region—on the golf team.

“We provided opportunities for our international students to be involved in more than 30 clubs,” Dillon said, adding that ping pong, soccer, tennis, international club and social justice are some of the most common activities international students join. “We encourage them to really take advantage of this experience. We love taking them on retreats to get to know Utah. We’ve taken them to see the ice castles in Midway, go to movies on the train, ride the tram to the top of Snowbird and do all the activities there, float the Provo River, go to Jazz game and a Bees game, and gone on university tours.”

Dillon said that most international students are like Mai; they are wanting to enroll in a good academic school, so they attend college in the United States.

“The main goal of our students is to not just have a one-year experience or an exchange experience, but rather to come for multiple years, graduate with a diploma and move on to a university,” he said. “We’re looking to give them the experience.”

Dillon said that international students who attend high school in the U.S. have a better chance of being accepted into higher education institutions. 

“In general, you have a better chance of getting into the higher universities when you have our counselors or our stamp or our diploma that says, ‘We’re vouching for these students,’” he said.

Juan Diego’s strong academics is a natural draw for many international students, Dillon said. 

Juan Diego was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2019 from the U.S. Department of Education and that same year, the school was named the top 2% of schools nationally and named by the Washington Post as the most challenging high school in Utah based on the number of AP tests given divided by the number of graduating seniors. In 2018, the school began graduating students from AP Capstone, the first school in Utah to offer the accelerated program.

Juan Diego offers a two-week orientation for new international students to ensure successful transition, including time with teachers and staff and becoming familiar with the community and using public transportation, Dillon said. Many international students live with host families their entire four years to gain the sense of what it’s like to be part of an American family.

“We’ve had great experiences; the students love it, and the host family loves the student and appreciate them bringing the world into their home and giving their children that same flavor of culture and language. They tell them ‘We’re thankful to have you’ and include them on their family vacations to Yellowstone or Arches,” he said.

However, Dillon also points out to them they aren’t simply guests.

“At orientation, we tell them, ‘You’re now part of American families, so you’re going to help around the house, you’re expected to do chores, expected to do laundry, mow the yard.’ Some of them come from their homes where there is no yard, no grass, no chores or say my mom did my laundry, but we tell them, ‘You’re going to get a good experience learning to do it here.’ They catch on and after about a month, it’s part of their routine,” he said. “We challenge our students to grow character in spirit, mind and body.”