More Than What Meets the Eye

A closer look at the experiences of residential students


It was September 1, 2015.  The new residential students in Lipke house sat in nervous silence.  “Go around and say your name, grade, and where you’re from.”  Slowly we went down the line: Germany, U.S., China, Germany, Korea, U.S. and U.S.   We were a small but diverse group.  Soon after that awkward first house meeting, the girls became inseparable despite our differences.

A Diverse Program

Students are drawn to SEM for a challenging and unique education from all over the world.  Whether they come for an exchange or to stay, the girls in SEM’s residential program are bonded through common experiences, no matter where they are from.

The residential program brings an interesting dynamic within the school that is better for everyone.”

— Eva Cunningham

SEM’s residential program began in 2008 with one house.  There were seven students total: five from Asian countries and two from Jamaica.  Over the years, the program has grown immensely, becoming an essential part of the school.  Today, it is composed of four houses and about 40 students who have come from a wide variety of countries including Argentina, China, France, Germany, Korea, and the United States.  “The residential program brings an interesting dynamic within the school that is better for everyone – administrators, teachers, and students,” said Oishei House director Eva Cunningham.  Eva went on to say that the program not only augments SEM’s diversity, but contributes largely to the enrollment as well.  “It has also helped to build the beautiful courtyard we now have and add to the campus feel of our school.”

Primary Homes

For residential girls, Buffalo is a second home though they never lose connection with her hometown.  While many are aware of the various nations represented at SEM, residential students come from many different regions of their countries.  Each has a unique culture, upbringing, and traditions.  Amber Ye ’17 and Joah Smith ’19 travelled home over the winter holiday and agreed to share more about the towns in which they reside.

Bengbu Born and Raised

Bengbu, Anhui

Amber Ye is from Bengbu, Anhui, a city she describes as crowded, but rather small compared to other cities in China.  She has lived there all her life.  Nicknamed “Pearl City”, Bengbu’s largest commodity is freshwater pearls.  “The name itself means pearl port,” Amber explained.  Along with pearls, the Huai river serves as an important symbol for the city.  “The river goes through my city, which is important economically and culturally,” Amber said.  Historically, the river served as an important transportation route and made Bengbu a large center for trade.  She went on to say that many people feel a certain attachment to the river.  Bengbu’s location between the north and south of China also makes it unique.  “There is a super tall statue.  One side points to the north and the other side points south,” signifying a geographic border.

Miejiang Alley

When asked where she enjoys hanging out in the city, Amber paused for a moment before mentioning Miejiang Alley.  “There is a street full of street food and small restaurants.  Walking around or finding a place to sit down is fun,” she shared.  The alley is named after craftsmen who use bamboo strips to make hats or baskets.  There is even a small statue commemorating the artisans.  Nearby is the “walking street”, another place in which Amber spends some time.  It is a “wider street where no cars are allowed, almost like a square,” she said.  This is where Amber likes to shop with friends.

A street corner in Bengbu

“I don’t like all parts of living there, but there is no pressure for many things.  For many people, life is fast paced.  But, in my city, everyone has a place.  People are okay with where they are.”  For Amber, Bengbu has a great balance of large and small city aspects.  Her family does not own a car, rather they walk or use public transportation, something she misses about her city.  However, while it is crowded, Amber described Bengbu as having a more leisurely pace than other cities.

The walking street during winter

Living in Bengbu has shaped Amber in several ways.  “It is not as resourceful as larger cities,” she said.  Though looking for a different education was a challenge for Amber, living there has made her appreciate the friendliness that is sometimes lacking in many booming metropolitan areas.  She described Bengbu as visitor-friendly and humble.  Natives of the city also relate to each other on a deeper level.  “We have a dialect, so you really feel a connection to these people,” she said.  “It is a place where people identify with each other quickly.”

Amber and her grandparents.

Her education was the source of Amber’s attraction to Buffalo.  “Going abroad was a big opportunity for me,” she said.  There are limited options when it comes to colleges in China and Amber wanted to receive a different education.  “In my middle school, there were about 800-900 students in my [graduating] class.”  The large school was not competitive nationwide.  So, she worked hard to participate in an exchange program in Massachusetts her freshman year.  The following year, Amber came to SEM.

Except the educational system, the largest difference between Bengbu and Buffalo is the food, according to Amber.  “Buffalo is less crowded and probably cleaner because there’s not street food everywhere,” she said laughing. “The food is more expensive here,” she added, saying that the dining where she lives is far more casual.

Bengbu is one of many lesser-known cities in China. “There are so many underrepresented regions and cultures in China,” said Amber.  “China itself is very diverse in many ways.  It’s not homogenous.”

Simpsonville Spirit

Simpsonville, South Carolina

Joah Smith has called Simpsonville, South Carolina, her home for about a year and a half.  The small town is located in the northwest region of the state.  It is largely characterized by having many farms and few stores.  “There is a dairy farm across the street from Target,” she said.  While Simpsonville is seemingly a typical Southeastern town, it does have one unique quirk.  Several railroads run through the town, sometimes passing in and out of people’s yards.  The railroads once fostered an important period of economic growth for Simpsonville and now serve as a symbol of the small town.  Another iconic landmark of the town is the clock tower.  Built fairly recently, the tower quickly became an integral part of the Simpsonville community.

The Ice Cream Station
Joah Smith ’19

When I asked Joah about her favorite places in Simpsonville, the woods behind her house first came to mind.  “There is a tree that is really easy to climb.  Sometimes I take naps there,” she said.  However, there are various places around town Joah enjoys include a restaurant called Cheddar’s and the Ice Cream Station.  She is fond of the local library.  “It’s another one of my favorite things to do.  I actually made friends with the librarians there,” she said with a chuckle.  Climate is another aspect of Simpsonville Joah loves.  “I like the heat.  The people are also nice.”  While towns may be lacking in many resources larger cities have, Joah enjoys the comfort and kindness of a small community.

Cedar Grove Baptist Church

Joah described Simpsonville as a religious town.  “Church is a big thing.  I love my church,” she said.  Joah and her family go to Cedar Grove Baptist church.  She especially loves attending the post-mass gatherings where the food is to die for.  The most significant holidays for the town are “anything Christian and the Fourth of July.”  During the winter, Simpsonville residents partake in carriage rides, a tradition she is fond of.  On July 4, citizens spare no expense preparing for the patriotic festivities.  “People light up fireworks in their backyards.  You can buy them in front of grocery stores,” she said of the immensely popular holiday.

According to Joah, Simpsonville, though charming, can be boring.  “It made me more creative.  I made my own fun,” she said.  Having a younger and older sister certainly helped.  “We always tried to find the most unique license plates while driving.”  This sense of creativity has expanded and made Joah the artistic person she said is today.  Living in such close proximity to forests, Joah has also developed a love of nature.  “I feel more comfortable around bugs,” she said, having had many encounters with uninvited guests in her home.  “I never kill bugs.”

The south undoubtedly impacted Joah’s identity.  Having lived in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as Simpsonville has influenced her personality.  “I consider myself to be at least a little bit southern.  When people say to me ‘you can’t be southern because you don’t have an accent,’ I get upset,” emphasizing just how quickly she grew an attachment to the region.

Under the Surface

China and the United States are two of the largest countries in the world, so their residents may be grouped as one solid population despite each having hundreds to thousands of cities.  Making a generalization about either country is impossible.  Each residential student is unique in her experiences and origins.  Each has a different story to tell, yet all are connected through boarding at SEM.  After only a short time spent among residential students it is possible to learn something.  The residential program is a major part of the school and one of the things that makes SEM so special.  Each day, one has the opportunity to learn something about another culture or region she did not know the day before, which is something not all students can say.  Joah said “it’s impossible not to experience another culture at SEM.”