The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 13, 2013

Someplace like home: Bishop Carroll transforms hall for international students

EBENSBURG — International students attending Bishop Carroll Catholic High School are many miles away from home, but that doesn’t mean the homey feel can’t be with them.

Aquinas Hall, which is located on the school’s campus, serves as the home for students taking part in the Aquinas International Program and the hall recently went through a major renovation project to give the facility a more modern and updated feel.

The school started housing students in the building in 2009, when the program began. But since Aquinas had most recently been used by the community college, it had more of an institutionalized classroom feel.

“We wanted to transition it to a house setting. So this past summer we spent countless hours going through each room and evaluating the space and seeing what needed to be done,” said Geri Beltowski, director of the Aquinas International Program. “A lot of time, energy and effort went into this, but it’s a complete joy to get to this point.”

Work included painting, stripping paint off woodwork, repair work to walls and decorating the rooms to give them an aesthetically pleasing look.

“We focused on the bedrooms first and added some color and the multipurpose room where the students study, eat and socialize,” Beltowski said.

The next phase includes upgrades to the bathrooms and laundry facilities and general maintenance projects.

“We’d also like to renovate the front porch and utilize that space where we could have furniture and a grill to have cookouts,” Beltowski said.

“This is their home away from home and we want to provide the best we can for them.”

In its first year, the program had six participants with a host family living on the premises to watch over and advise the international students.

Currently, there are 15 Chinese students from freshmen to seniors enrolled.

“We are looking to expand into other countries, and our goal is to make this a diverse house with students from all over the world,” Beltowski said.

Instead of host families, the house is now supervised by two international coordinators  – Rossella Williams and Michelle Wetzel – who live in the hall and are there to make sure the program runs efficiently.

Aquinas has the capacity to house 25 students, and the hope is to increase enrollment with each school year.

“We are always looking at what we need to do to make improvements and expand,” Beltowski said.

The international students have to follow house rules and curfews, but they also have an opportunity to get out and see what the area has to offer.

The program is a win-win for both the international and Bishop Carroll students because it creates a global community within the school.

“It allows the international students to experience American culture and for our students to experience cultures from around the world, which is very diverse, so it’s a great opportunity to learn more from one another,” Beltowski said.

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