Milica Manojlovic’s high school is more than 5,000 miles from home.
The eleventh grader from Montenegro moved to Gainesville two years ago to attend The Rock School. She came to the U.S. to play high school basketball in hopes of earning a college scholarship.
The Rock School, a Gainesville K-12 Christian school, began an International Student Program in 2004 to give international students a chance to go high school in the U.S.
The school has hosted nearly 200 international students from more than 40 countries around the world in the last 10 years.
Manojlovic looked at several schools before deciding on The Rock, which she chose for its Christian education, small size and strong athletic program. While she struggled with learning and communicating in English early on, she said she now feels more comfortable.
Of the school’s 350 students, 15 percent are international, and this percentage is on the rise, said Irene Lewis, international student director at The Rock.
This is in stark contrast to other high schools in the area. Only 5 percent of Gainesville High School’s students are international students. Buchholz High School has only five international students out of its student body of 2,190, and P.K. Yonge currently has no international students.
Many of the students come from China and Eastern Europe, with a growing number from Brazil.
“Most of them come because they eventually want to study here at the university level. They know that if they come for high school, that’s the time where they can learn English, get acclimated and then have more success when they do get accepted,” Lewis said. “We also get a lot of athletes that come that want to get athletic scholarships as well.”
The program helps prepare international students for success after high school.
Over the last 10 years, more than 90 percent of these students attended a four-year American university after graduation, and 98 percent of the international athletes were awarded college athletic scholarships, Lewis said. This year, international graduates of The Rock went on to study at Purdue University, the University of San Diego and Southeastern University.
One student, Nina Krstić, came to Gainesville from Croatia and graduated from The Rock in 2011. She attended the school for her senior year of high school after her manager in Croatia found the program online, which seemed to have the perfect mix of educational and basketball opportunities.
Krstić earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Tampa and played there for two years before transferring to Palm Beach Atlantic University where she plays basketball and studies nursing.
“It was my first year in America so it took me a while to learn the language, and everyone at The Rock was just very welcoming of me,” she said. “Not only that, they really emphasized the education and took time to prepare us for college and what college life would look like.”
Krstić lived with a host family during her time in Gainesville, who she said was very welcoming.
“I definitely appreciate my time at The Rock. I had a really, really good time there,” she said.
The international program began at The Rock when a student from Lithuania came to Gainesville to study at the school in 2004. Lewis said that people loved having the chance to be introduced to a different culture.
After the positive experience with that student, The Rock was registered through the Student Exchange and Visitor Program with the goal of creating student diversity and allowing international students the opportunity to study in the U.S. for high school and eventually college, Lewis said.
“We started getting more and more inquiries and accepting more and more international students,” she said.
Since then, the International Student Program at The Rock School has grown into an immersive educational experience.
The program aims to allow international students to experience American culture by arranging trips to the beach, museums and theme parks, according to the website. Every year, students have the option to go on a mission trip to another country.
Many come to The Rock knowing little to no English, but Lewis said she has seen the American students try to help them learn. She said the local high school students now say that learning alongside international students is one of their favorite things about going to school at The Rock.
“They are very aware of the globalization that is continuing to happen, and the kids are hungry for that international awareness,” Lewis said.
When students arrive in Gainesville from their respective countries, they have the option to participate in any one of The Rock’s three programs: day, host family or boarding.
For the day program, students may live with relatives in the area. In the boarding program, students live together in apartments about a mile from the school’s campus. Resident assistants in the apartments work as liaisons between the students and the school.
For Neto Peralta, an eleventh grader from Brazil, The Rock’s boarding program has been his favorite part of the international experience.
“I live with friends and we always do travel and stuff, so it’s fun,” he said.
Peralta came to the The Rock because his mother wanted
him to study abroad in high school to improve his chances of going to college in the U.S. He looked at schools across the country before deciding that The Rock was the best fit for his high school education and his future.
Peralta has struggled with learning English, especially when trying to understand material in his science classes, but is improving, he said.
Lewis said that the program is not only beneficial for the students, but serves an important role in Gainesville itself by bringing more international cultures to the town.
“It’s almost like we’re providing a service that was needed on the high school level here, and I’m really proud of that,” she said.