School administrators, teachers, students and community members came together last Thursday night at the Darien Sports Shop to welcome a dozen fresh faces to town.

The gathering, which was open to the public, introduced 10 students and two teachers from Shanghai No. 3 Girls School in Shanghai, China to guests. The visitors are staying with hosts families in Darien for two weeks as part of the Darien-China Student Exchange, a program that has been fostering transnational experiences for Darien students for the past nine years.

Darien Superintendent Donald Fitfal was one of many who welcomed the visiting students and teachers at the reception.

"I'm a great friend of the exchange, because I got to go on the first trip," he said. "For the next two weeks, you are children of Darien."

Fitfal described the exchange as a short-term experience with lifelong rewards.

"The two weeks goes by in a flash, but it's the weeks, month and years afterward when you reflect that are really great," he said. "It's enriched the school, and my experience as an administrator. ... I get the most out of the students' joy and how much they get out of it."

Darien students and families participating in the program have agreed to host a student for two weeks, from Tuesday, Sept. 29, to Tuesday, Oct. 13. Darien students involved in the exchange program course will make the trip to Shanghai this spring for a three-week visit.

Some DHS students in the course are currently serving as hosts for the Shanghai students. All of the students in the two-semester course are learning Chinese literature, language, art, music, culture, history and education. Though it's not required, some students, like Claire Tuck, 16, a junior, are also taking a Mandarin course.

"Right now I know how to say `hello' and `thank you,'" she said. The language isn't easy, she said, but she thinks it will help her while she's in China.

"I'm really excited to go over. It's probably the only chance I'll have to go to China," Tuck said. "It's always important to get out of your comfort zone, go to new places and meet new people ... it's a great opportunity and privilege."

Tuck's family is not hosting a visiting student this semester, though several of the other students are in the program, like Katie McKay, 15. McKay is a junior at DHS, and her family is hosting Le Huiying, 16, who is known as Lucy by her American friends.

McKay said she has already learned several cultural differences from Huiying.

"She went to all my classes with me today," McKay said. "It was different for her, because there, the teachers move from class to class; here, we do.

"It's a different culture," McKay said. "When she first got here, she got my whole family presents."

Though there are many differences between her family and her guest, McKay said Huiying is fitting in well.

"She speaks English really well," McKay said. "And she helped my mom cook chicken pot pie the other night."

Though it was a lot different than the cooking style she's used to, Huiying said she enjoyed the experience.

"I learn a lot from my host family, and students and teachers," Huiying said. "My host mom is very nice. She takes me everywhere."

The Darien Library and Nielsen's Florist are among two of her most recent destinations.

"Darien is a really well-built city. The library really impressed me a lot," she said. "In China we have no Halloween, not a lot of pumpkins, so the flower shop really impressed me."

One of the most significant differences she has noticed is that between her school and DHS, she said.

"The educational system here is different than China," she said. "Students here can choose what they like and study it. In China, we must study everything, and later maybe choose.

"In China, everyone eats in the classroom, and everybody eats the same thing," she said. "My favorite experience is attending the different classes, like Spanish and American history."

Huiying's English teacher, Xiao Yuan Xu, and her Chinese teacher,Wang Li, are also participating in the program.

"The teachers also attend classes and make observations," said Jean Shortliffe, the China exchange program teacher. "They get a broad view of what we do, not just how we operate, but also our thinking of how we teach."

Over the past nine years, this has resulted in a two-way stream of ideas and new understanding.

"As teachers, we can really share how we want students to learn. It's a nice exchange for teachers, not just students," Shortliffe said. "It really has opened up all kinds of doors."

Xu, the English teacher from Shanghai, prefers to think of the program as a bridge.

"It's like a bridge connecting Darien and Shanghai. People are going back and forth," she said.

"For us, it's a great program. We have many people -- teachers, students, parents -- involved," she said. "Students who have been here before have a lot of connections with host families and teachers.

"This program influences them a lot. Many of them are now studying at American University, Yale, Cornell and Boston University."

These connections have also influenced dozens of Darien families and administrators, according to Fitfal.

"It's been a special cubby hole in my administrative career," he said. "Sometimes a great idea bursts on the scene and fades away. This has stayed in burst mode.

"The importance of the awareness of the world -- it's essential to help young people develop that awareness. This is the kind of experience that does it for them."