A trip to China can be a once in a lifetime experience for a middle school student.
For the students at Thomas and South middle schools in Arlington Heights who began a 10-day trip to China on Tuesday, another once-in-a-lifetime experience was added -- a chance to meet first lady Michelle Obama.
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The students met the first lady at the Summer Palace in Beijing on Saturday.
The trip had been arranged by those associated with the trip when they learned that Obama would be in Beijing at the same time they would be visiting.
When the group learned that the meeting was approved, it was kept a secret from the students until the day before, said one of the teachers who accompanied the students, Iris (Aiyu) Zhang, who teaches Chinese at South Middle School.
At 11 a.m., the group was greeted by White House staffers at the East Gate. They then received a tour for about an hour.
Then the group went to the Garden of Virtue and Harmony to wait for the first lady.
Zhang said the security was heavy.
"They had to clear out tons of people who were taking pictures of us. We had three or four security guards surrounding us throughout this tour. We all felt like VIPs," she said.
Around 2:30, the first lady, accompanied by her mother and her two daughters, approached the staircase where the students were waiting and shook everyone's hand.
One of the students, Samantha Goodmanson, 13, said, "She was just kind of asking us questions like, 'How are you? How has your trip been? What was your favorite part?' Just making conversation."
For Goodmanson, it was a trip that included such highlights as seeing the Great Wall of China.
"It was absolutely breathtaking. If you stood on top of the Wall at any point and you looked out, you could see for just miles around all of the mountains and the little cities."
It was also a chance for Goodmanson, who has made the trip before, to try out a language in which she said she is "not completely fluent yet, but enough to get by."
She said she is thinking about using it for business later on in life.
Another student who met the first lady, Nathan Van Gelderen, 13, said, "It wasn't a total surprise. They let us know in advance on Friday. We were all very excited to meet her.
"Everybody that was meeting her was very formal, and she was, too," shaking people's hands and telling them it was nice to meet them.
"She seemed very nice, just like she seems on TV."
Zhang said the group that traveled to China included herself, Brenda Hsu, Chinese teacher at Thomas Middle School, and a group that includes 17 students, two from South Middle School, 14 from Thomas Middle School and one from Buffalo Grove High School who is a brother of a Thomas Middle School student, as well as nine parents and Jerome Green, assistant principal of Thomas Middle School,
"This trip was done two years ago, and we're planning to do it every two years," Zhang said. Any student who is currently taking Chinese could go on the trip, which costs about $2,000.
The trip, she said, is intended both for cultural enrichment as well as for the opportunity to try out their linguistic skill.
The group will be in Xi'an, China, and is planning to see the Terra Cotta warriors on Monday. This collection of life-size figures, artifacts of the Qin Dynasty (211-206 B.C.), were uncovered in one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century.