World-wide link; Merrimack seeks ‘sister school’ in South Korea

MERRIMACK – After a visit from 18 South Korean students and staff members, Merrimack High School is one step closer to establishing an exchange program with a potential sister school in Ulsan, South Korea.

Korean students from Maegok High School paired with Merrimack host students on Thursday, Feb. 16, to spend a day learning about American education and culture.

“I found the opportunity to meet people from Korea and be immersed in their culture and talk with them to be very wonderful, and I love that our school is given the opportunity to share or culture with them,” said Emma Nigg, a junior at Merrimack High.

Merrimack Principal Ken Johnson said the school’s mission encourages students to participate in the global society.

“We wouldn’t be the school we are if we didn’t place an emphasis on our students as global citizens,” Johnson said Friday. “That is the whole point of this.”

Nigg hosted one of the visitors for her third time Thursday.

“As Mr. Johnson said, we’re the bridge between America and South Korea,” she said.

Freshman Britney Fisher said Thursday’s visit was her first time hosting.

“I would love to do it again,” she said. “I learned a lot about their culture.”

Merrimack special education teacher Dayna Chow said visiting students were accompanied by their vice principal and English teacher.

“The experience, especially the cultural experience, learning about their school and their school system – it was really exciting,” Chow said.

Merrimack High School has had a similar relationship with a school in China for nearly a decade, Johnson said, adding they are also pursuing ties with schools in Spain.

Groups of South Korean students and teachers visited for the first time a couple of years ago, and again last fall and this week.

“There are not many South Korean students here at Merrimack High School,” Chow said. “I think it would be a really good eye opener for students to meet international students.”

Faculty members also learn about the differences between schools in the U.S. and South Korea.

“It’s a learning experience for us and the students,” Johnson said, noting differences from the place of competitive sports in school culture to the length of the school day.

“They don’t have homework, but they have a 14-hour school day,” Nigg said.

“That’s the whole concept behind a cultural exchange,” Johnson said. “Every aspect of the culture you can think of, you thirst for information in these conversations.”

Merrimack students may eventually visit South Korea, as well.

“Our hope is we have an opportunity to send a team to visit with South Korea – we have an invitation already,” Johnson said.

Given the chance, Nigg and Fisher said they would make the trip.

“Hands down,” Fisher said.

Merrimack enrichment coordinator Linda Mandra said South Korean students stop by the town during tours of universities in the area.

“We are the high school on their tour,” Mandra said, noting Korean students from Gim Hay, a foreign language high school, visit as well.

“We are as much a part of the tour as MIT, Harvard, New York City and Niagara Falls,” Johnson said.

Last fall, 130 Korean students visited.

“They put on a huge percussion show,” Johnson said.

Merrimack students reciprocated with performances featuring the marching band and a rendition of the South Korean national anthem. Merrimack band director Pat Cunningham tracked down the music for the anthem.

“The music was not available,” Mandra said, “and (Cunningham) got the song and wrote down the music.

“It was incredible.”

Johnson credited math teacher Natalie Cate for initiating the relationship with South Korean educators.

“She has a sister who serves as a teacher in South Korea,” he said. “She approached me and asked if I would be open to it, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”

Along with Chow, Mandra and Johnson, ESOL teacher Jessica Field helped to welcome students to the school.

Nigg is now friends with the student she hosted, Minhyuk, on social media.

“It was such a great experience, and they’re so nice,” she said. “It’s such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-1246, or @Telegraph_ TinaF.