Local families provide bridge for foreign students
MIDDLEBURY — Every fall semester, the Great Hall is decked out with decorations and numbered stations for the big host family reveal. International students and local families meet on campus to discover their matches.
Participants in the Friends of International Students (FIS) Host Program have been anxiously awaiting this morning ever since they filled out questionnaires weeks earlier, detailing their expectations and hopes for their host experiences.
Kathy Foley and her colleagues at Middlebury College’s Office for International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) work tirelessly during the short time period at the start of the semester to pair students and hosts, based on preferences such as family size, religion, and academic or professional interests.
As participants trickle in, they are given the questionnaire of their match to read over. Students and families are confined to separate rooms. Once everyone has gathered, they are released into the Hall to finally meet their partners for the next four years. It’s a moment full of expectation and excitement.
Foley piloted the program in 2001 as a result of student interest. Chinese professor John Berninghausen had created an informal host family arrangement for students before the official program, which introduced Middlebury students and families to the idea.
“We live in an 8,000-person town, and the world is coming to us,” Foley said. The FIS Host Program seemed like the perfect way to take advantage of the influx of international students.
The program immediately received an outpouring of interested families and students. Foley and her team quickly learned how to manage expectations on both ends and facilitate good communications between hosts and students. The host families are not expected to provide students with a place to stay, but rather to invite students to explore life outside the campus. Hosts may be individuals, couples, or extended families.
Many host families and students arrange to have a weekly meal together; attend a community activity or event, or take trips throughout the state. And, of course, have the students join them to experience holiday celebrations.
Even though the host commitment is modest, Foley and her team also discovered how complicated the matching process could be. “There’s never a perfect match or a mathematical formula to calculate whether people will blend well,” ISSS Administrative Coordinator Carolyn Dahm said.
Dahm realized through her work on the program “how diverse students and hosts are.” As a result, “some matches don’t take off,” Foley said. But it seems that many do, and can even lead to lifelong connections, according to Foley.
Host mom Jutta Miska has made many such connections in her 30 years of hosting international students. Miska and her family just attended their first Middlebury student’s wedding, and have kept in contact with many past host students.
Miska herself was an immigrant from Germany, and so relates to students feeling lonely or out of place. “We thought as host parents we could give kids a home they can go when they feel homesick or want a home cooked meal,” she said.
“We love to eat and cook (with our students),” Miska said. She and her family also enjoy taking their host students around Vermont and having them over for holidays. Miska feels that the relationships she forms with her host students are reciprocal. In return for her generosity and vulnerability, she receives the same from her students. She loves to learn about their different cultures.
When Miska began hosting, her son was seven years old and her daughter five. She wanted them “to learn from early on that there are different cultures out there and you can respect and accept them.” She sees this as a powerful way to counteract racism and hatred.
Miska is currently hosting two students. Abdoul Nasser Bounia, a rising junior at the college from Niger, was surprised at how much Miska and her family cared about him. His experience showed him that “you don’t have to share blood with someone to be family. You don’t have to spend 17 years of your life with someone to be family.”
Another host family veteran, Emily Joselson, has had similarly positive experiences with Middlebury students. Joselson has been hosting for 14 years, and “enjoyed visits from (her) two original host daughters” this summer. One host daughter brought her six-month old baby along, lovingly dubbed Joselson’s “host grandson.”
Joselson has attended dance recitals, music performances, and presentations. She has travelled to British Columbia and Bosnia to visit former students. She has found it “so enriching and wonderful” to learn about and experience different cultures via the FIS program.
Amy Mason is a newcomer to the program. In October 2017, she met her student, Flor Fernández Montes, and they immediately hit it off.
Mason has enjoyed their cultural exchange through conversations and through food. Fernández Montes taught her host family how to make empanadas and Argentine cookies called alfajores; in return, the family shared their famous chocolate crinkle cookie recipe.
Miska has also bonded with her students over culinary exchanges. She and her husband prepare traditional German recipes for Nasser Bounia, and he has cooked Nigerian dishes for his host parents in return.
Beyond the individual, and often tasty, exchanges between hosts and students, Foley feels the program is encouraging unity between college and community at large. “It’s a way for community members to participate in what the college offers, to have a tie to the college,” she said.
“I think it’s important for us to get to know college students because often there is friction between college and town… and it’s important for students to get off campus and get to know the community, because it’s never the way they assume it is,” Miska said.
On an even bigger scale, the program works to create more cross-cultural understanding. It acts as a form of “citizen-to-citizen diplomacy,” as Foley puts it.
“(My husband) Brian and I appreciate the opportunity these expanded friendship circles have provided as we seek to raise our children with an awareness of diverse perspectives and backgrounds, which feels especially important when xenophobia and racism are on the rise in America,” Mason said.
Foley and Dahm will be running information sessions throughout the summer for interested host families. They plan to continue bridging cultural and generational divides and creating more communication and understanding with their work.
What to do if you’re interested in being a host family
1) Go to the FIS page at the college’s website, and complete the FIS Student Questionnaire.
2) ISSS typically matches students with hosts twice per year (Fall and Winter) at an informal “matching event” hosted by International Student and Scholar Services. From that point on, program officials say, “the program is what you and your international student make of it. Some families and students meet weekly, while others meet periodically throughout the year for meals, campus events or holiday celebrations. Our hope is that you will form a friendship that will last far beyond the student’s time at Middlebury.” The next matching event is Fall 2019, Saturday morning, Sept. 28.
3) To get involved all host families must attend an information session: Sessions are held during the summer for Fall Term matches, and by appointment for Winter matches.
2019 FIS Information Sessions will be held on:
•Monday, July 22: 5:30-6:30 p.m.
•Wednesday, July 24: 5:30-6:30 p.m.
•Tuesday, Aug. 6: 12:15-1:15 p.m.
•Friday, Aug. 16: 12:15-1:15 p.m.
•Monday, Aug. 19: 12:15-1:15 and 5:30-6:30 p.m.
•Thursday, Sept. 5: 5:30-6:30 p.m.
Can I ask for a student from a certain country?
While we cannot guarantee that you would be matched with a student from a particular country, we will consider special requests. All potential hosts will fill out a questionnaire in which they can provide detailed information regarding their interests and expectations. ISSS will use this information as well as the students’ questionnaires to arrange the best matches possible for all involved.
Where do the students come from?
The incoming class includes over 70 international students from more than 25 countries, including some U.S. students who live abroad. We also match students who are at Middlebury for a year-long exchange program.
— Nora Peachin
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