Connecting with American families is an essential part of experiencing American customs and culture. The Northwest Community College Initiative (NWCCI) knows that the friendship family program is one of the best ways we have for introducing our students to the wide range of traditions and cultures that make up the United States. Each NWCCI participant is partnered with a local family who has volunteered to serve as a friendship family by including the student in family events and activities throughout his or her time here. As we start of our fifth year of the friendship family program, we asked a few of our wise and experienced friendship families to share their advice on how to make the most of their time with their students.
Getting to know each other
Give your student a chance to teach your family about his or her culture. Ask him or her to bring a favorite dish to a family dinner or to teach you a game popular at home.
Asking about his or her family is a great conversation starter. Open ended questions, like “What are your career plans?” also get conversations started.
Play a game at family gatherings where the student asks you any question about you or the USA.
Host an informal “getting acquainted” dinner. Use this time to find out what music, TV, movies, books, sports and general activities the student likes. If you have a list of activities you have done with past students, present to the new student to see what he or she would like to do.
Learn what kinds of food he or she has experienced either before coming here or while here and ask if there are any new kinds they want to try. Then, try to expose them to new kinds during their stay.
Be clear when going out with the student if you are intending to pay for him or her.
If you invite a student to join you for a holiday, let them know in advance what to wear, who will attend and if they need to bring anything. Explain what your family traditions are regarding gifts for birthdays, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc.
Give the student clear guidelines about how to communicate with you. Let him or her know if you prefer the phone or email and if there are certain times they should not call.
Remind students that they are welcome to contact your family when they would like for you to join them on something they are doing, like a presentation on campus or attending graduation.
Talk about cultural norms in your family around physical expressions of affection, greetings and timeliness.
Share food concerns at your household, for instance if your family is vegan or allergy sensitive. Also ask the student if he/she has any dietary restrictions.
Remind family members to be aware that at times jokes and slang may confuse someone from another culture and to be prepared to explain things when necessary.
Try to include your student in activities you or your family are already doing. Past successful activities have included: attending high school and elementary school plays and sporting events, cooking lessons, picking and decorating Christmas trees, meeting to pass out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters, camping trips, attending family cookouts and dinners, hiking and berry picking.
At first keep activities simple and low cost, walk in the park, ride a city bus, eat a frozen yogurt or Starbucks, walk through a large store, take them to visit your place of work.
Consider ways to introduce your student to a normal day in your life. Talking to them about simple things like what you do at your job or how you make decisions at the grocery store may be more interesting than you would expect.
If you volunteer, invite the student to join you. One family took a student from Egypt to march in a city parade with a candidate for Congress and the student had a wonderful time.
Take your student to the events on campus, that include speaker presentations, sports, theatre, student club events. Look for extensive listings on your campus website.
Consider taking a short trip with your student (or a group of students) to a unique destination that the college doesn’t go to: Olympic Peninsula, San Juans, Portland by train, Mt. Baker alpine hiking in September.
Invite the student early for big family events like Thanksgiving or Christmas. This will help you know if they can come and help the student plan for breaks and other invitations.
Be aware that your student will be very busy. Try to have your most active times with them coincide with their holidays, early in the weekend or days when they have fewer classes. Don’t be offended if it takes awhile to hear back from them sometimes.
Talk to your students about their goals for their time here. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by all that they intend to achieve. Consider ways you might be able to help by putting them in touch with a volunteer organization or potential internship provider.
Your student has limited financial resources here, regardless of their circumstances at home. While they have enough to buy food to cook, etc. and a little for entertainment or inexpensive travel staying in hostels, for example), they generally cannot afford expensive meals out or expensive tickets, travel, etc. If your student travels on their own, you can help them greatly by finding a home stay for them at their destination using the network of friendship families/your own networks.
Enjoy your student. It is a remarkably rewarding and enriching experience.
Be okay with miscommunication.
Be candid about your life experiences. It is interesting and informative for students to know about the challenges people face in the United States in areas like health, personal finances and employment.
Listen, listen, listen ask and listen some more.