PITTSFIELD — A group of international students offered the community a chance to travel the world in the time it takes to cross a gymnasium Saturday afternoon, by cooking and serving traditional dishes from their home countries.

The Maine Central Institute students were dishing out food representing 13 countries as part of the Cultural Diversity Club’s annual International Food Festival at Parks Gymnasium. The event was a chance for the high school’s 140 international students to share part of their culture with other students and the community.

As a small rural community in the whitest state in the union, Pittsfield is not the most expected international hub, yet a little less than a third of the student population is comprised of foreign students.

They come from around the world for a chance to improve their English, study abroad and take advantage of educational opportunities unavailable in their home countries.

Roberta McGuire, international student program coordinator, said a lot of the international students chose MCI because they know someone who already had enrolled. The school also recruits internationally, McGuire said.

Robin Zhu, student vice president of the Cultural Diversity Club, said he chose to attend after a friend from China told him he had had a good experience at the school.

Sophomore Catherine Mezavilla, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said she and her father found the school while researching American schools on the Internet.

Mezavilla, who was serving brigadeiro, a kind of chocolate candy, said American high schools offered her the chance to practice English and study abroad. She said she hopes to study fashion design.

She made a sign with the ingredients for the candy, listing “chocolate, butter, milk, love.” She joked that she couldn’t resist adding “love” to the ingredient list as part of an ongoing effort to shake up New England sensibilities, which she said can be rigid compared to Brazil, where people hug and kiss to greet each other.

Chinese food was the most-represented ethnic food at the event, proportional to China being the most heavily represented country among the international students. Students served a dozen Chinese menu items cooked in different styles from the different regions of the country.

Jennifer Yeung, who was serving food at one of several tables bearing a Chinese flag, said some of her friends from home wish they also had the opportunity to study in the U.S.

Students here have more flexibility with their time and more freedom, Yeung said. She said she chose to attend MCI as a chance to learn English and attend a higher-quality school than she could in Hong Kong.

Along with the international students, the high school serves as the public school for Burnham, Detroit and Pittsfield students while also enrolling private students, from both out of the country and other school districts.

The number of international students at the school has been steadily climbing over the past 20 years, from around 80 enrolled annually to 140, according to McGuire.

There were 1,250 international students studying in Maine during the 2011 to 2012 school year, up 7.9 percent from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of State. The report states that while the number of international students has been growing, Maine is still ranked third-from-last among all 50 states.

International students studying in Maine during the 2011-12 school year contributed $40.5 million to the economy through tuition, fees and other living expenses, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
[email protected]

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