Mandarin language students take trip of lifetime

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- For some of the students of Sharpstown International School, language studies mean total immersion.

Loi Lai and Gabriel Omar Castillo, both sophomores who take Mandarin Language classes at Sharpstown International School, were selected in late 2014 to go on an all-expense-paid two week immersion study abroad program in Taiwan. The students studied at Cheng Kung University in Tainan. They returned on January 7th.

"The city of Tainan was really pretty," said Lai.

Both are the sons of immigrants, who taught them that hard work was the key to future success. Both are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Castillo said he did not own a passport prior to this trip and that he'll be the first person in his entire family to take an overseas trip. Lai said his family ended up in Texas because the U.S. gave his grandfather a chance to immigrate to America after the Vietnam War.

Taiwan officials said they were so impressed with the school's program that they wanted to sponsor, for the first time in the school's history, a scholarship that would pay for their study abroad stay, which included tuition, accommodation, and local transportation. The Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce in Houston also contributed funding, while China Airlines donated flight tickets.

"I found the students here...very educated. They are polite. They are disciplined, and they have very great performance although they are from some very disadvantaged families," said Sophie Chou of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.

"When it comes to the affordability, most of the parents are not able to send their children abroad," said They Le-Thai, the principal of Sharpstown International School. "As part of the study, it's as a core experience, to be abroad, to be someplace else so we're very grateful for the opportunity."

Lai and Castillo were chosen for their Mandarin skills, grades, personal stories and musical dedication. Lai plays the clarinet while Castillo plays the guitar.

Both came back from Taiwan re-energized about the culture and their future studies.

"It really helped me, and I know it would help everyone," said Castillo. "Once you see it for yourself, and people there speaking, you feel more encouraged to learn it."

The magnet school boasts a 0 percent dropout rate and a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
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