Jia is one of two Chinese students attending Chelsea High School this school year through the school's new partnership with BCC International Education group.
Dexter Community Schools, Saline Area Schools and Ann Arbor Public Schools began working with BCC International in the last year or two, and some Washtenaw County schools work with other organizations to host students from other countries as well. Exchange students typically commit to completing their final two years of high school in Washtenaw County.
"My parents think American education is better than Chinese education. They think American education is a better fit for me," said Jia, who said she began learning English at age 3. "I want to know how American teachers are different than Chinese teachers. But I worry that I can't understand the teacher's language in the class."
The chance to attend an American high school is something many of the students placed by BCC International have wanted for years, and it requires a significant financial investment from their families.
Families pay for travel, insurance for their student, room and board, school meals and $10,000 a year in tuition to the public schools where they enroll, said Laurel Capobianco, vice president of BCC International, which is based in Troy. Michigan public schools receive the usual per pupil foundation allowance from the state for their exchange students in addition to the tuition.
The average annual salary in China was the equivalent to $10,400 U.S. dollars in 2016, according to Trading Economics. Average salary varies by industry and region.
"They want to improve their English proficiency by speaking with students who are native English speakers. And they want to be prepared for college in the United States," Capobianco told The Ann Arbor News . "It's creating a global platform for students to engage with each other in a setting that becomes natural ultimately. We say global education leads to world peace one student at a time."
On Aug. 29, 23 Chinese students gathered for orientation at the BCC International Student Center — a former University of Michigan sorority house that has been converted into a residence hall for male exchange students attending school in Washtenaw County.
The students role-played through different scenarios they may encounter with their host families and teachers, practicing their conflict-resolution skills and getting used to doing group activities — which doesn't happen at schools in China, Capobianco said.
"Remember, this is like democracy in America — you get to vote," she said to the students as she asked them to cast ballots for their favorite role-playing skit.
For Bob Lee, who will attend Ann Arbor's Huron High School, an American education is the path to a business degree. AAPS expected to enroll around 65 international students from 16 different countries this school year, said district spokesperson Andrew Cluley.
Lee, 16, said his parents own a car glass company, and while they didn't study in the U.S., they wanted him to have that opportunity. He has been learning English since he started kindergarten at Northeast Yucai International School in Shenyang — the main school BCC International works with to recruit students — and he said he wanted to study in America since he was in third grade.
Lee's first visit to the U.S. was last year when he traveled to Georgia for a Future Business Leaders of America competition. He said he's interested in trying sports like swimming, golf and badminton this year and experiencing the U.S. teaching style.
"In America, we can talk to the teacher in class and if we have something we don't understand, we can ask and the teacher will be patient with us," Lee said. "But in China, some teachers don't like that because they will think, 'If you ask me a question, then I cannot finish my class (lecture).'"
Michigan hosted 33,971 international students as of May, which includes students at high schools as well as colleges and universities, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That's a 14-percent increase from the number of international students who attended school in Michigan three years ago.
Nationally, the number of international students studying in the U.S. increased by 1.3 percent from May 2016 to May 2017, according to Homeland Security.
The international perspective of exchange students is a valuable addition to Dexter High School's International Baccalaureate program, said Superintendent Chris Timmis. Dexter Schools hosts around 35 exchange students from as many as 20 different countries each year, he said.
"If you walk into the front doors at Dexter High School, you'll see flags representing every country we've hosted a student from at DHS hanging through the halls," Timmis said. "We've had so many countries represented that we are now adding flags into the next section of the building."
Kristine Pan, 17, is enrolled as a senior at Dexter High School this year. She visited colleges in several big cities in the U.S. in 2013 and has wanted to return since then.
"The buildings there are pretty and the libraries are so good. I just want to be a part of that, so that's why I wanted to study here," Pan said of the college visits, adding that she wants to major in statistics or math. "I want to study here for high school and then apply to college."
Bill Zhao, 16, will attend Saline High School this year. He said he attended school in Maryland for one year when he was 12 years old, and his mother made the trip with him then. Some of his friends from his school in China are attending schools in the U.S. now too, Zhao said.
Zhao said he's excited to try swimming, basketball and guitar and to make friends, and he's most nervous about earning good grades and taking the SAT.