International students join St. John’s community, adjust to Houstonian culture


Matias Androgue

Juniors Juliana Boon and Leonidas Iliopoulos joined the St. John’s community at the start of the 2022-2023 school year.

Just two weeks before the start of the school year, junior Leonidas Iliopoulos lugged all of his belongings through airport security and flew halfway across the world from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Houston. Iliopoulos was one of the few international students from his school selected to spend a school year abroad as part of the Assist Exchange Program. 

“I wanted something difficult,” Iliopoulos said. “I wanted to travel and get to know more people.”

The Assist Exchange Program is a nonprofit organization that connects students from more than 50 countries with American independent schools in hopes of fostering important cultural connections and curiosities. 

Assist placed Iliopoulos at St. John’s because it corresponds well with his interest in engineering. At first, he was apprehensive about coming to Houston because of cultural differences, but Houston turned out to be not so different from home, thanks to its many shops and restaurants.

“We are all the same people,” Iliopoulos said. “We want the same things.”

Sports curriculum is a key difference between Iliopoulos’s home school and St. John’s. European schools typically do not have school sports teams, so he has only ever played for out-of-school basketball teams. 

“Sports have been extremely exciting and have helped me make friends.”

Similarly, for Juliana Boon, a junior who moved from the Netherlands, school sports have helped her assimilate into the St. John’s student culture. Back in the Netherlands, she played goalie for the youth national team. Now, she is an integral part of the Mavs field hockey team. 

We are all the same people. We want the same things.

— Leonidas Iliopoulos

One difference that Iliopoulos noticed between his home culture and Houston culture is the transportation system.

“You have huge roads, like twenty-lane highways,” Iliopoulos said. “In Europe, the biggest highways are only five lanes wide.”

Iliopoulos is used to traveling on foot or bike. At his first social gathering in Houston, Iliopoulos was surprised to see so many cars parked outside.

“You go to a house and eleven people are supposed to meet and you see eight cars—that’s super impractical,” Iliopoulos said.

Boon has faced logistical issues with transportation. When she went to the DMV, she realized that in order to get her learner’s permit, her mother needed a Texas driver’s license. While she waits for her mother to go through the formality, Boon has been carpooling with friends.  

Besides the differences in transportation, Boon and Iliopoulos both notice significant differences in their academics.

Iliopoulos particularly enjoys the academic rigor and classroom activities at his new school.  

“Classes are way more fun than I expected,” Iliopoulos said. “I like engineering and architecture a lot.” 

Boon previously went to an academically rigorous school in the Netherlands, taking 12 classes last year. Although switching to only five classes may seem like a decrease in workload, “crazily enough, going from 12 classes to five has been more.”

Classes are way more fun than I expected.

Many of the math terms and concepts are completely new for Iliopoulos, and he initially didn’t understand much of the vocabulary.

 “In math, since everything is in English, there’s some words I don’t understand,” Iliopoulos said.

Iliopoulos is currently living with the Smith family, who previously hosted a junior from Bulgaria, Victor Slavov, seven years ago. In their application to host, the Smiths were required to submit pictures of their house and undergo a background check. Iliopoulos participates in family life by cooking weekly.

Overall, Iliopoulos attributes his smooth cultural transition to how welcoming and accommodating the community has been toward him.

“St. John’s is a really good school, and I’m very happy to be here.”