Imagine this: You are a student away from home for the first time, in a new country, unsure of your language skills, and shaky on the traditions and cultural differences. And you can’t go home for the holidays.
What do you do?
For international students at Georgia Southern University, the International Extended Families Program (IEFP) has the answer.
International students who have chosen to leave their home countries and come to school at GSU may find American culture, customs, traditions and social structure a bit daunting. But having a host family through the IEFP can help make that transition so much easier.
Host families are there to encourage students with their studies, support them when they are homesick, and celebrate the milestones in life such as birthdays and holidays. It is also a great opportunity for students to share their cultures, languages and traditions with their host families.
Right now there are around 10 host families assigned to students, according to Lindsey Heard, graduate assistant with the program. Her job is to help find the families needed to host the students. She has traveled to area churches to recruit families, and says they are hoping for more to apply.
“It doesn’t mean they are financially responsible for the students in any way,” she said. “I think it helps the students adjust to the new area because, I’m three hours away from my family and it sucks. So I can’t imagine being a whole ocean away. So I think it helps them find their home away from home, something to do on the weekend, something to get them more connected to the Statesboro community, beyond Georgia Southern. And it helps with the homesickness.”
Heard says there are currently five or six students who are awaiting assignment to a host family.
Most students are expected to meet with their extended families at least monthly, but the number of contacts per semester and the kinds of activities they do vary from one family to another. Many of the families often host their students for dinner, and invite them to family activities.
Host families don’t have to be, well, families. Individuals, students, married couples and families are all encouraged to apply. A weekly International Conversation Hour is held at the Williams Center on the GSU campus, each Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Those interested in the program are invited to attend and meet students and staff, and learn more about how the program works. During a recent weekly luncheon, students from Nigeria, Germany, China, Japan, Trinidad, Venezuela, India, Ukraine and Brazil were present.
Maria Ratide, a 19-year-old student who has only been in the U.S. a few months, was at the luncheon and said that her host family has helped her adjust to life in Statesboro and in the U.S.
Ratide, who is half Japanese and half Brazilian, calls Brazil home, but came to the U.S. as part of a Japanese student exchange. Her host family, Bill and Linda Taylor, pick her up weekly and take her to church, and then they go out to lunch. They often also have dinner together sometime during the week, and “hang out together,” Ratide says.
“I was homesick and I couldn’t study,” she said. “They helped me overcome the homesickness. They also give me advice. I felt more, like, at home and I continued to study.”
Dr. Dorothée Mertz-Weigel, director of the Office of International Programs and Services at GSU, says that many people don’t realize the sacrifice an international student makes to come and study in the U.S. The whole process is very expensive; once a student has a visa, they still have to pay travel expenses, then out-of-state tuition and fees, housing and health insurance.
“They probably won’t have a car, and don’t know anyone either. So they may not be able to run to the store for items they need or to buy groceries,” she said.
The holidays also present a unique challenge.
“The holidays are special times. They may not celebrate a particular holiday in their country or culture, but having someone to explain the traditions and foods and to just be with people who are from here is a great and necessary cultural exchange,” Mertz-Weigel said.
Mertz-Weigel says that those who are considering becoming a host family should take that first step and go for it.
“It doesn’t hurt to just try,” she said, inviting anyone who is interested to attend the Conversation Hour and meet the students and check out the program. She calls the weekly luncheons amazing.
“It’s a time of socializing. They know that they can find their friends here. Or if they don’t have friends, they know they can find people here that are interested in meeting international friends, or to meet friends from new countries that they don’t know about and discover new cultures,” she said.
She said sometimes, for Americans, fear is a factor, due to differences in culture, and it can hinder.
“The fears may come from the unknown. I don’t know why else someone would not want to come and discover or be part of this wonderful family. I think it’s just not knowing what to expect. So just come to experience it at least once, and see that there is nothing to fear,” she said.
For more information on the IEFP or to apply, e-mail Heard at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at (912) 478-1379. You can also contact Angie Threatte, coordinator for International Programs & Events, at (912) 478-0570, or e-mail her at email@example.com. You can find more information, and the link to the host family application, at www.georgiasouthern.edu/international.