After almost two months in China, 27 high school students from Baltimore County's public schools returned home July 17 with new friendships, souvenirs and tales of their adventures as strangers in a strange land.
"It was so cool," said Lutherville resident Jordan Seibert, 17, a rising senior at Dulaney High School. "I didn't want to come home."
When she found out about the trip, Seibert felt compelled to participate.
"You hear about it and you just think, 'I wanna go, I wanna go'," Seibert said. "There's something about it."
Seeing the Great Wall of China was one of Seibert's favorite parts of the trip, she said. She even kept a small, worn fragment of brick that had long ago crumbled from the ancient structure.
Lutherville resident Natalie Walker, 17, also a rising senior at Dulaney High, said one of her initial reasons for going on the trip was that participation in an exchange program might make her college applications look better.
Her other motivation was "to become a better person," Walker said. That is, a more well-rounded person, with greater perspective.
"When you go to China, you learn about another culture, and some of it's shocking," she said.
The students left for China on May 25 and stayed with host families in Xi'an, where they also attended school alongside their Chinese counterparts.
Earlier in the year, students from Xi'an traveled to the U.S. and stayed with Baltimore County families and students. The local students' trip to China was the second half of an exchange program that's been running for about five years, according to Peggy Johnson, director of the county schools' Office of World Languages.
The program has steadily grown in popularity. In its first year, 2007, three students and one teacher traveled to China.
Johnson credits school Superintendent Joe Hairston with making the exchange program a success.
"He was the one who started this program and provided it with initiative," Johnson said.
She thinks the program is important because it provides the students with tools they need for the future and for a shrinking world.
"They're competing globally," Johnson said of the students.
"They need to understand that cultures are different, but people are the same," Johnson said.
Each student had to come up with $2,300 for the trip to China. That pretty much covered only the plane ticket, though.
Any spending money had to be provided by the individual students and their families. The host families took care of food and kept a roof over the students' heads.
Now that they've returned from China, the students seem less interested in souvenirs than in their experiences.