One of the important ways we connect international students in the Northwest Community College Initiative (NWCCI) with the local community is through our friendship families program. Friendship families play an important role in the NWCCI student’s experience by providing valuable support throughout the year as well as exposure to U.S. culture by involving the students in family gatherings and activities. In addition to a number of returning families, Edmonds Community College (EdCC) had five new friendship families this year. NWCCI Program Advisor Kim Kraft interviewed the new families for some thoughts on why people become friendship families and advice they might have for future families and students.
For all five of the new families that I interviewed, the motivation for becoming a friendship family had common themes of sincere desire to learn about other cultures, make connections, and meet new people. Many of the new families have children and they also said they were glad that their kids would have the chance to learn about the world through NWCCI students. For example, Shirley Goudard-Reyes and her husband, who have been paired with a Brazilian student, were excited to share what they know about American culture. “We wanted our 6- year old son to be exposed to people from different cultures and to experience welcoming someone from a different country into our family,” she said.
As a former NWCCI program adviser of four years and a former international student herself, Shirley added that she strongly believes in the intercultural exchange value of the program. Like Shirley, Kanchana Kularatne can relate to what the students’ experience as newcomers to the United States. “I myself was once an international student who knew nothing about life in a community college or life in America. Some people from EdCC became as close as family and helped me navigate through the system and welcomed my diversity. I felt like becoming a friendship family was the best way to get to know someone else’s culture while making them accustomed to the American life, diversity and all the wonderful things about our close knit community here at EdCC,” she says.
Many exchange programs ask families to provide housing and meals for international students; Christine Smith pointed out that one of the benefits of the friendship family program is that the family is not expected to make such a big commitment. “Our family hosted short term exchange students many years ago and really enjoyed the experience. This was an opportunity to make a connection with an international student with a smaller commitment than hosting a student in our home,” she explained.
Christine works in the housing office at EdCC, as does Porcia Juchmes. Both Christine and Porcia said that they have enjoyed getting to know the students on a more personal level. Porcia’s favorite thing about being a friendship family has been getting to know her student and having the student over for dinner: “It is so fun getting together and catching up with the student and hearing what they are doing in school.”
When it comes to the idea of cultural exchange, the friendship family program provides the perfect opportunity for authentic exchange. Just by sharing a meal or celebrating a birthday together, students and families learn so much about one another’s culture. As Kanchana put it, “My favorite thing is that I have gotten to know my student and his culture as much as they have come to know us.” Christine pointed out that the NWCCI program plans a number of activities, so she suggested that families be creative they are planning activities. Kanchana also emphasized that the activities do not need to be elaborate in order to be meaningful. “Sometimes we would just spend time talking over a meal at home. But these were sometimes the best moments we shared,” she said.
Open-mindedness and communication were key components in the advice that these new friendship families offered, both to future families and to the students. As Shirley advised, “communicate with your student as often as possible, and don’t wait for them to contact you because they sometimes are afraid to be an inconvenience.” Kanchana offered similar advice: “Let your student know that you are there for them anytime. Be open to others’ ideas, be prepared to embrace diversity.”
Students should also take responsibility for the communication piece. As Terry Goldstick put it, “I would encourage the new students to also call their friendship families so the friendship feels mutual.” Christine suggested that students “be willing to reach out to your friendship family if you have questions or concerns, they would love to assist you in any way they can.” Shirley added that it is important for students to remember that these families are volunteering their time so it is always important to thank them. The friendship families do a remarkable job of supporting the NWCCI students and this program would not be complete without them.
The NWCCI program is part of the Community College Initiative, an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.