International students tackle the cherubs program

Students in the 2019 program came from Brazil, China, Indonesia and South Korea.

As Isabella Werneck and Abigail Zhao rode the bus to Chicago on a field trip, they discussed Chinese history. Werneck studied it at her school in Rio de Janeiro but has always wondered how the history is taught in another country.

“I love reaching out to people from different cultures and learning from them,” Werneck said. “You just have to take it all in.”

Among the 83 cherubs this year, 10 are international students from four countries: Brazil, China, Indonesia and South Korea. They made up 12% of the students.

“Sometimes it might take me a while to form a sentence that makes sense,” said Ashley Soebroto, a rising senior at the Jakarta International School in Indonesia. “But people here are understanding, and they helped me with that and gave me the practice to think on the spot.”

Zhao of Shanghai said, “Speaking English every day is the biggest change. I go to a school where students predominantly speak Chinese, so my English has improved since I got here.”

The linguistic difference is not the only adjustment international cherubs made. To Zhao, the most surprising part of the program is the classroom style.

“My school in China doesn’t emphasize discussion that much,” Zhao said. “But people here like to share their opinion. When I am in a group where everyone else is talking, it pushes me to speak as well. Normally I am not the student who asks or answers questions, but throughout the program, I began to feel comfortable raising my hand and expressing my opinion.”

An international background became helpful when cherubs worked on their assignments. Werneck interviewed a musical group called the Evanston School of Samba for her Fourth of July parade story, which was published in The Daily Northwestern.

“It feels so great interviewing someone who also shares the passion for samba,” Werneck said. “Speaking in Portuguese gave both me and the people I interviewed comfort because they have to speak English all the time when they are in America. Walking down the parade with them gave me a sense of community.”

Penelope Zhang of Beijing wrote her trend story on the impact of the U.S.-China trade war on Chicago businesses. A native Chinese speaker, Zhang could interview Chinese business owners and translate interviews into English. The program provided the spark needed to pursue the story, she said.

“I’ve always been interested in the impact of the trade war, but I wouldn’t be able to explore it without the program,” Zhang said. “I don’t know if I would have the courage to call strangers and ask how they are doing if I wasn’t a cherub.”

A five-week program abroad can be daunting for international students, but the 2019 international cherubs have advice.

“Start reading American news, especially politics,” Zhao said. “Get familiar with what is going on in the U.S.”

Cherubs also have tips for adjusting to the program’s environment.

“It can get hard for international students, but be brave to talk to people here,” said Angie Chung of Seoul, South Korea. “They are understanding and curious about you and where you come from.”

Cherubs don’t need to be native English speakers to make friends and have a great time here, Zhao said.

“The community wouldn’t mind if you don’t speak fluent English,” Zhao said. “But if you stay quiet, it’s unfair to expect that people would approach you.”

During the five weeks, international cherubs not only became better journalists but also gained a deeper understanding of diversity and their own cultural identities.

“It opens me to so many opportunities and allows me to see things from so many perspectives,” Zhang said. “You just have to take it easy and enjoy the process.”