Niagara Catholic High School retains that welcoming spirit that greeted students from St. Mary's, Bishop Duffy, and Madonna high schools when it opened its doors in 1975. In the fall of 2012, kids from St. Dominic Savio Middle School joined the nearby school, merging to form one junior/senior high school. Teachers and pupils now welcome four foreign-born students to their classes.
Niagara Catholic, which continues to participate in the Nacel Open Door program, began its own international student program last fall, which has brought two Vietnamese students to the school. Loi Pham and Minh Hoang, both ninth-graders, came from a private school in Hanoi. Pham came to NC at the suggestion of family friend Dr. Hung P. Le. Formerly the president of the Olympia Schools in Hanoi, Le now serves as vice president of International Relations for Niagara University. He introduced the idea of coming to Niagara Catholic to Pham, promising a better education for him in the States.
Asian schools base their teaching on a Confucian education principle, involving hierarchal teaching and rote memorization.
"You memorize everything," said Le. "You regurgitate it on exams. Faculties at universities pretty much control the class."
The Liberal Arts education of the United States is attractive to Asians who want a freer, more involved, collaborative education.
"American education is rooted in self-reliance, independency," Le said. "There's a sense of self-creativity, giving the sense that your voice can be heard. You can challenge a professor. You have the confidence and ability to fact check. I think that type of education is extremely attractive to any young person around the world, not just Asian students."
Le knew Pham had a passion for music and sports, and possessed an American sense of creativity.
"He was struggling in ways because the teachers could not understand him," Le said.
"I think there's a bit of frustration on his part. I think to be able to take what he is passionate about, the skills that are already innate, and to develop further, to give him a platform where he can grow rather than try to snuff it out of him. I think his personality with his particular mindset fits in the American model. He will succeed and he will thrive and he will be more successful in the United States rather than Vietnam."
After a semester here, Pham invited his best friend Minh Hoang. Both students attend a full courseload during the day and live with host families after class. Hoang stays with a retired couple that has adopted Vietnamese and Korean children, all now grown.
When not in class, the lanky youth with spiky hair plays shooting guard for the community church basketball team. He finds Niagara Catholic a friendly place, with helpful teachers.
Pham has been staying with school counselor Natalie Beilein and her family. Beilein, who serves on the committee for the international exchange program for NU and NC, offered to host the boy based on her Christian upbringing.
She has three children, but having a readymade teenager wasn't something she was prepared for.
"It wasn't until he was on his cell phone for an hour and I was like, wait a minute," she said. "I wouldn't let my kid do this. So now he's my child. While he's here, I'm host mom. So, I really had to think. I'm going to apply all the rules I would set for my son or daughter at age 14.
Pham entered the family as a full member, but with a little more independence than the other, younger children. He has a curfew and a bedtime. He always minds his manners. Asking permission is something that comes naturally to him.
"His culture automatically brings respect," Beilein said. "I've noticed that. He knows to ask me."
From her work at the school, Beilein knows teenagers do not always make the best decision, but Pham has not been a problem. The family is amazed at his take he has on American consumerism. He is cautious with his money, and questions why Americans feel the need for big houses and multiple cars, thinking they are all unnecessary for living.
"What I love is, my children get to witness him and are learning all this," Beilein said. "I try to teach my children that life is not about materialism and money. It's about loving each other and helping each other."
Pham doesn't even realize he is being a role model for the younger children. Belein worried that the boy would miss his family, but one of his strengths is being independent.
He and Beilein regularly communicate with his family via emails and FaceTime. And he can always visit with his brother, now a freshman at Niagara University.
Both Pham and Haung plan to continue with the school for the next four years, flying back home during summer breaks.
"I think the students who are here are well adjusted," said Le, who plans on recruiting more international students for Niagara Catholic and Niagara University.
"One of the things I am so happy about is, Niagara Catholic has been a phenomenal environment for these two. The parents are extremely happy with the school. (Principal) Ron Buggs and his team have been phenomenal to them. Very supportive, very understanding of their needs. Making them feel very welcome, not as a foreigner, but as a member of the family."
Niagara Catholic also has two foreign-born students who are not part of the exchange program. Dinke Moir, 19, from Ethiopia, was adopted by missionaries at age 14 and brought to U.S. a year and a half ago. It was scary for her to come to a strange place, knowing little of the language, but after three days everyone knew her and was friendly. She completed her coursework last year, but is staying on at NC to improve her English and be better prepared for college.
"I really enjoy Niagara Catholic," she said. "Everyone is so wonderful to me. The teachers and all the students are very friendly. I feel welcome."
Jisun Lee came from South Korea to live with an aunt and uncle. She has been at NC for just under a year. She finds more opportunities in America, like being able to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports. Korean schools put a much heavier emphasis on bookwork. Along with their fondness for their American school, all the students agree on the one thing they miss from their home country - food.