Anniston is a far cry from large Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, but five new Donoho students are settling in just fine.

Part of a new formal program at the Donoho School in conjunction with the Cambridge Institute of International Education, the students have been in Anniston since the start of the semester in early January.

“Study here is a lot more relaxed than China,” said Cindy Zhou, 17. “And we have more extra activities like sports.”

Several of the students, including Audrey Lu, said the desire to attend an American college or university lured them to a stateside high school. Audrey has her sights set on the University of Chicago and might transfer to a school there next year.

A growing trend

Matthew Jennings, director of global marketing with the Cambridge Institute, said that as applying to America’s top colleges and universities becomes more competitive, more students “choose to get a leg up on the process and attend high school in the United States, better preparing them for the rigors of undergraduate study.”

According to statistics from the Institute of International Education that tracks college attendance by foreign students, China sent more students to the U.S. than any other country in the 2011-12 academic year. China’s U.S. study abroad participation increased by 23 percent last year to more than 194,000 students.

The Cambridge Institute, Jennings said, enrolls about 1,000 new students each year and works with about 180 schools, about one-fourth of which are located in the southeastern United States.

Sue Canter, director of admissions at The Donoho School, said over the years the school has tried to find ways to increase the cultural diversity of its student body, something that was made more difficult because the small day school offers no boarding for non-local students.

“In recent years, when we’ve been contacted by students or families who were interested in coming, that was the one stumbling block,” she said.

Canter said that over the years, it was typical to receive two to three inquiries annually from students wishing to study abroad at Donoho, typically from Korean families with ties to the area. The families, however, were responsible for finding homes for the students, generally with family members or through church connections.

About two years ago, she began to receive inquiries from international study agencies on behalf of families. At the time, she said, she did not feel comfortable with the number of families willing to host students, especially for a three- to four-year program.

But when Cambridge Institute contacted the school last year, she said, everything seemed to fall into place. The institute, she said, had what seemed to be an inclusive program, and if school staff did not feel comfortable running a homestay program to house the students, the institute arranged it for them.

“With our homestay program now, they are able to handle everything efficiently and according to the visa requirements,” she said. “It’s a more polished, professional way of handling it so we can ensure success for the student and their family.”

Cost to families

The endeavor is not cheap for the families sending students to the U.S. to study.

According to Tucker, families pay one lump sum to the Cambridge Institute, which covers tuition, homestay fees and other costs to the Cambridge Institute. Next year’s tuition at Donoho will cost approximately $9,000, and homestay stipends to cover additional expenses for host families amount to $700 per month.

“Within the fee they pay to Cambridge, they get the ESL services and continuous support,” Tucker said. “And our company is in continuous contact with the host family and families at home.”

Jennings said the total cost of studying abroad can vary based on location but it typically averages about $30,000 to $40,000 each year, with the range of costs being much broader. The cost, he said, includes such items as tuition, residential costs, support services and health insurance.

Student experience

Life in Anniston has had delightful surprises: the ability to see stars in the night sky for Schneigen Ye, 15, and forests for 15-year-old Wendy Zeng, both of which are uncommon sights in their home cities of Shanghai and Changshi.

Dant Jiang, 15, has embraced American cuisine, ticking off a list of new foods he loves: tacos, pasta, pizza and especially buffalo wings.

Despite the new discoveries, there are some things the students miss from home. The lack of public transportation has been frustrating to the students, who are used to being able to get places on their own via buses, trains and even public bicycle rental systems.

The transition to Donoho classrooms has been relatively smooth for the students, they say.

“We have more freedom; we can choose the class we’re really interested in to take,” said sophomore Cindy Zhou, 15, who has a strong interest in psychology and plans to study the subject formally when she returns to Donoho in the fall.

In China, Cindy said, students have no choice at all about which classes they take and typically spend an 11-hour day at school.

Program growth

Jennifer Tucker, the residential coordinator and program instructor in English as a second language, said Donoho teachers have handled the transition very well, working in accommodations for language barriers when necessary, although that need is rare. Tucker works with the students on their English skills, including grammar, during an advisory period each day.

Donoho hopes to expand the program next year to 10 international students, including those who choose to return from the inaugural group. Canter said she already has accepted and wait-listed a new set of students, all of whom are from China, for next year’s program.

Tucker said she is always looking for host parents for incoming exchange students. Anyone interested in hosting a student can contact her at 256-282-1102 or

Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.