Vail Mountain School’s new international program brings the world to its corridors |

Vail Mountain School’s new international program brings the world to its corridors

Makoto Ono, of Japan, and Hannah Lautenberg, of Edwards, get off the bus together at Vail Mountain School on Thursday morning. The Lautenberg family is hosting Ono for the school year as part of Vail Mountain School's new international program.
Eleanor Nesbit | |

VAIL — If you’re a Chinese student who just landed in Vail, pizza is apparently a big part of becoming Americanized.

Take the kids who just rolled into town as part of Vail Mountain School’s new international program. They left Asia on Aug. 17, spent three days in New York City and then winged their way to Colorado.

Before they left Denver on Wednesday, they ate pizza. They were also pretty darned thrilled about the French fries, cookies and ice cream. A salad resided in the general vicinity.

When a couple of them learned they’d be eating pizza for dinner Thursday night, they were over-the-moon happy.

Welcome to ’Merica.

Big ol’ hug

Vail Mountain School is embracing these kids like they’ve loved them all their lives. Three VMS students comprise a built-in support group for every international student staying with a host family.

Sylvia’s real name is Mutian Shi, but you can call her Sylvia. She’s from Zheng Zhou, China, and is staying with the Harrisons. Carlie Harrison is a junior and Jordan Harrison is a freshman — the same as Sylvia.

“I want to learn more about American culture, and the best way to do that is to live it,” Sylvia said. “I want to learn everything I can.”

Josh Lautenberg’s family is hosting Makoto Ono from Nagoya, Japan.

“I always wanted to go to high school in the U.S.,” Makoto said.

She has been to the U.S. once before, but she was 4 years old and doesn’t remember much about it. However, her older brother and mother remember everything about it, and, oh my, the stories they would tell.

Makoto is 16 years old and happy to be here.

“I want to experience as much as I can, as much culture and as many outdoor activities as I can. I also want to do community service projects. To be perfectly honest, in Japan, we don’t do that much community service in connection with schools. We’re usually too busy studying.”

J.P. Elmblad, a VMS junior, is an international peer mentor, one of three assigned to each international student.

“Our job is to make them feel welcome and give them a circle of friends,” Elmblad said. “I know how it is to be a new student, and that you could feel even more lonely when you’re a new student with your family in a different country.”

Olivia Manula is a VMS freshman paired with a Chinese freshman named Tina. They Skyped all the time before Tina made the trek to America.

“I feel like we already know each other pretty well,” Olivia said. “When we started, it was basic questions, but we moved very quickly into daily life.”

And that, more or less, is how they came to have a unicorn on Tina’s welcome sign.

“Tina likes horses, and we thought this would be more exciting,” Olivia said.

They’ll be there for the entire school year. They’ll be visiting their families in China during holiday breaks and have the option of staying through high school graduation.

International perspective

Leela Greenberg is the program coordinator and for good reason. Greenberg has a double degree in Chinese and Spanish, which works out well. Besides VMS’s eight kids from China and one from Japan, they’ll host nine kids from Mexico.

Greenberg spent a year in Spain as a Fulbright scholar and studied abroad in China and Taiwan.

For VMS’s international program, she traveled to four major Chinese cities and interviewed 107 kids.

“Chinese students are most interested in coming to the U.S. to study for a more extended period,” Greenberg said.

Chinese students who attend U.S. high schools get a different perspective. If you’re more right brained — artistic or abstract — a U.S. high school might be the place for you.

“They have other skills that might not fit with that level conformity,” Greenberg said.

It’s also a trend. More than 50 percent of foreign students at Purdue University attended American high schools, Greenberg said.

Testing in U.S. schools is puppy puddles compared to testing in China. There’s this test in China that all high school students take. The results of that test, coupled with your high school performance, dictate whether they can go to college, what college they can attend and what their major will be.

“If you’re not in the top 1 percent, you don’t get to choose,” Greenberg said.

A 13-year-old boy she met in Beijing cut straight to the heart.

“I know I will learn so much from American friends in a U.S. school. The more we make friends, the more America and China will get along in the future. This is very important,” he said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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