Williams School senior finds her voice in music

New London — For the first few years of her life, Quella Gu spoke so infrequently, her parents thought she might be deaf.

“I was really shy,” said Gu, now 18 and set to graduate from the Williams School on June 5. “I didn’t talk to anybody — even family friends.”

Worried, her parents sent her to a weekend arts school on top of regular kindergarten, hoping she would latch on to a different form of communication.

It worked.

The native of Shanghai, China, could sing, it turned out — and she didn’t feel shy when doing so.

Before she knew it, she was appearing on commercials and TV shows, including Ultimate Broadway and the children’s version of The Voice of China. She also performed at noteworthy events, including the 2010 Shanghai Expo, a six-month world fair that amassed more than 73 million visitors.

Asked whether she was famous back home, Gu chuckled. “A little bit,” she said. “People know me as ‘The kid who sings.’”

Gu thinks she was about 8 when she saw High School Musical and began dreaming of pursuing music in the United States. She knows she was in eighth grade when she withdrew from her gossipy peers and had an epiphany.

“I realized music is the one that was always there for me,” she said. “I connect with music. It’s a cliché thing to say ... but listening is absorption and singing is expression.”

When she came to the Williams School as a sophomore — part of her still can’t believe her parents agreed to send her — she had another epiphany.

“I figured out that nobody will understand what I’m thinking if I don’t tell them,” said Gu, who already knew English but had to adjust to a new culture and to speaking the language regularly. “The only way to create change is communication.”

Gu dived in. She began acting and, this spring, aced the challenging role of Mimi Marquez in the school’s production of "Rent." She learned choreography so she could contribute to Compchorea, an annual, student-produced music and dance concert. She became an ambassador for the school and wooed prospective students and families with her honest assessment of it.

She recently tried her hand at music production, too.

“It has been a lot of new in the last three years,” she said. “My parents are really glad about how I changed and grew.”

Macy Kleinfelder, dean of student affairs, was surprised to hear Gu considered herself shy when she arrived in Connecticut.

Kleinfelder said she met Gu during the international student orientation, when “everybody’s nervous.” Gu’s composure, high level of English and willingness to get involved immediately struck Kleinfelder.

“Quella is one of those students who takes a moment to actually gauge her surroundings ... but sometimes what people might see as shyness, I see as humility,” Kleinfelder said.

Kleinfelder cited "Rent" as an example.

“She stole the show when it was her turn to, but then allowed plenty of others in that cast who were equally noteworthy to do the same,” Kleinfelder said. “She knows how to balance that and how to give credit to others.”

Megan LaCour, the school counselor, called Gu “mature” and gave her parents some of the credit.

“Her parents gave her the opportunity to come here and they said, 'Go for it,'” LaCour said. “They didn’t say, 'You have to take physics, you have to go to a research college.' Her parents said, 'Go and be you,' and she did. Boy, did she.”

Gu, LaCour quickly noted, still took calculus and other advanced classes at Williams.

LaCour said Gu was a leader at the school when some of the students, including Gu, lost a friend to suicide during Gu’s junior year. Despite struggling with the loss herself, she acted almost as a liaison between domestic and international students, encouraging all of them to express their feelings.

“She has made herself part of the fabric of this building,” LaCour said. “That is so impressive when her parents live a half a world away.”

Kleinfelder said many of the school’s 28 international students are “incredibly independent."

“They’re able to navigate things in ways a domestic student has not needed to do,” she said.

Gu, for example, got her own special visa so she could go on a trip to Eastern Europe. But she also figured out the little things, like how to get transportation from her host family’s home in Stonington to a friend’s house for the weekend.

Gu isn’t nervous about her impending move to Boston, where she’ll attend the Berklee College of Music. After growing up in Shanghai, she’s excited to leave the sleepy southeastern corner of Connecticut.

As for what’s next, she said it depends on whether and where she gets a job. She hopes to perform professionally but won’t rule out owning a music-related business.

For everyone else, she has two pieces of advice: be yourself, and put your time to good use.

"Why spend time judging other people when you can do so many better things?" Gu said.

l.boyle@theday.com

If you’re interested

The Williams School works with Apex International Education Partners LLC to arrange host families each year. Families volunteer for the role and, if they are selected, receive a monthly stipend.

Most students stay with families that live within 20 or 25 minutes of the Williams School.

Macy Kleinfelder, dean of student affairs, said each international family chooses its host family.

“They’re not looking at boarding schools,” Kleinfelder said. “I think that’s a unique piece of the students we’re getting.”

If you're interested in hosting an international student, visit www.aiepusa.com.

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