Columbia Independent School works to integrate, expand international program

Thursday, January 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Fifth-graders at Columbia Independent School study series and parallel circuits on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009. Katie Topouria, an international student from the Republic of Georgia, works on a prediction of what will be the brightest light bulb among given circuits.

COLUMBIA — Dong-Min Lee, a Columbia Independent School fifth-grader from Korea, has dreams of being a scientist when he grows up, but he isn’t sure what kind.

Dong-Min, 11, speaks English well, the result of living just outside of London for 2½ years as a preschooler. After living in England, he returned to Korea and attended first through fourth grade there. While attending school in Korea, he expressed interest in continuing English studies in the U.S. and decided on Columbia because his aunt is a student at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Dong-Min attends CIS through its Global Perspectives Program, which Head of School Scott K. Gibson III hopes to expand in coming years. The school is working to form a partnership with a school in England to begin a formal, regular exchange program. Gibson also wants to establish exchange programs with other continents, including Africa and Asia, where he spent time in a previous career.

“We’re talking to schools overseas and were working to set up a program,” said Jennifer Anderson, director of the Global Perspectives Program. “We’re just working to set up the details at this point.”

Gibson said he eventually wants to make teacher exchanges available as well, citing as his motivation the intelligent teachers he met while his own children studied at international schools in Chad and Morocco.

“Adaptability is not an option,” Gibson said, referring to studying abroad. “It’s what makes the difference between being successful and being really successful.”

Gibson also thinks his students can learn from and come to appreciate the challenges overcome by international students attending CIS.

Another Korean student at CIS, Sally Kim, has lived in Columbia for seven years now. Kim, 16, attended Paxton Keeley Elementary School for two years before transferring to CIS as a sixth-grader. She visits her parents in Korea every summer and is considered an international student because she is not an American citizen.

“I feel like at other schools, at CIS we have that motivation,” Kim said. “It’s easier to work in an environment that you can relate to.”

Kim said life for schoolchildren in Korea is rigid. “In Korea, you know early on what you’re going to do,” Kim said. “I wouldn’t be able to play (violin and piano) unless that’s what I was going to do.”

At CIS, however, Kim enjoys the freedom she has to play in the orchestra and practice instruments at her leisure.

Although Dong-Min will return to Korea in a few months to finish middle school and high school, he has high hopes to return to the U.S. for college.

“It’s everyone’s dream in Korea to go to college in the United States,” Kim said, adding that international schools are becoming a big trend in Korea and students work hard even in grade school, hoping to attend one of “The Holy Trinity” schools — Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

Kim and Dong-Min live with Seungkwon You, Kim’s uncle, who has been in Columbia for 17 years. He is a research associate and teaching assistant professor for the MU Asian Affairs Center and the Missouri International Training Institute.

The two fit into his family well, You said, and act like an additional brother and sister to his two children, who also attend CIS.

“Emotionally, I think they provide a really good balance and guidance,” You said. “I don’t know how my kids will cope with their vacancies.”

In addition to Kim and Dong-Min, two students from the Republic of Georgia also attend CIS.

Victor Topouria, 12, and his sister, Katie, 11, have been in Columbia for about four months but also lived in the city five years ago and attended Russell Boulevard Elementary School while their father earned his master’s degree at MU.

The family has also lived in Atlanta and has moved back and forth from the Republic of Georgia to the U.S. several times.

“I just get bored living in one place, so when my dad said we were coming here, I got excited,” Victor said.

Victor, a seventh-grader, wants to be a moviemaker or director in the U.S. when he grows up. For him, one of the most difficult things about living in Columbia is that ski resorts are too far away, he said.

Barbara Savage, the Lower School director at CIS, said Katie, a fifth-grader, is a ski champion. “She’s very modest about it, but they say she’s a tremendous skier,” Savage said.

Savage enjoys having international students attend CIS and said they adjust quite well and bring something special to the school.

“It’s been really fun to have these kids,” Savage said. “I have learned a great deal from them as well.”

In addition, Savage said she likes to eat lunch with the students to learn more about their customs and even cooked one of Victor and Katie’s mother's dessert recipes this past Thanksgiving: sweet rice with fruit and walnuts.

CIS is also hosting an international student from Ecuador. Joseph Cedno Alcivar, 17, is participating in the Rotary Youth Exchange program. He said he made friends very fast — “Sí, muy rápido,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Alcivar is staying with three host families during his time in Columbia, each for three months. The first family was from Mexico and Alcivar’s English didn’t improve as much, he said.

His second family is that of Katy Burch-Hudson, 17, another CIS student. She, too, was a study-abroad student last June in Australia and understands what it’s like to live with a host family.

“It’s been very different because you have to kind of explain to him the rules of the house,” Burch-Hudson said, which included explaining to Alcivar that he doesn’t have to ask for permission to use the bathroom.

In addition to hosting international students, CIS works to infuse global perspectives into the classroom. Anderson said each grade level of younger students focuses on a different continent. Katie and Dong-Min, for example, have spent their fifth-grade year learning all about Africa — making African crafts, listening to African speakers and studying the area in general.

Older students are required to take a global issues course and participate in Model United Nations, where they represent a country in the U.N. and travel to conferences across the country discussing various issues, Anderson said.

“I think (the program) really shows when you look at what the kids are doing,” Anderson said. “It’s really just infused everywhere."

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