Friendship Families

Discovering diversity in our own backyard

Catalina and Greg Hope are a veteran friendship family working with students in the Northwest Community College Initiative (NWCCI) program at Whatcom Community College (WCC) in Bellingham. Catalina, an ESL teacher at WCC, and Greg, a teacher at the local Goodwill job training center, have been paired with Michael Smith Hogan from Panama, Gozde Agar from Turkey, Shah Rais Khan from Pakistan and now Istyasmi Suminar from Indonesia. We asked them about their experience interacting with students from so many countries and they offer some example of activities they’ve done with their students.

IMG_7452_2Why did you decide to volunteer as a friendship family?

We came to Bellingham from the wonderfully varied cultural milieu of southern California and it has been a change for the better in many ways. Despite the many gifts that Whatcom County has to offer, we quickly found ourselves missing the diversity we had grown accustomed to when we walked the streets, and visited restaurants and other businesses down south. We looked around and asked ourselves, “Where’s the diversity?” The answer, of course, is that it’s at Whatcom Community College! After augmenting her post-graduate education with a TESOL certification, Catalina soon found herself teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at WCC in classrooms with recent immigrants and visiting international students. Greg teaches at the local Goodwill job training center, where he also serves students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. In our roles as teachers, we see ourselves as ambassadors, helping recently arrived or disadvantaged students to pursue education and to establish themselves in new lives that are welcoming and secure.

For us, serving as a friendship family for NWCCI is a natural extension of our objectives. More than anything else, our primary goal in this capacity is to be effective ambassadors and to represent the positive aspects of our culture for our visiting students. A significant number of our visiting NWCCI students come from Muslim countries, and we consider it our duty to improve the image of our country, especially in the eyes of students from countries in the middle East, and to present a more realistic view of our culture and citizens than sometimes appears in international news media. We may not be ending wars overseas, but we hope that our humble efforts contribute to greater understanding with our global neighbors and less enmity in the future. We went searching for more diversity in our own backyard and have been rewarded with some enduring friendships with wonderful young people whose countries we would otherwise be unlikely to visit for some time.IMG_7456_2

What are some of the benefits you’ve experienced? What have you learned?

The greatest benefit of serving as a friendship family is the friendship itself. It seems to be an element of human nature that we are intrigued by things that are distant and foreign in appearance, while often overlooking fascinating treasures in our own backyard. While it is no surprise to long-time residents that we have citizens from Russia, Ukraine and Mexico, we discovered that Whatcom County also has an Islamic Society, a Sikh gurdwara, and even a Mongolian population. Have you never experienced the Eid al-Fitr feast at the conclusion of Ramadan? How about the annual Sikh Vaisakhi celebration in springtime (the largest Vaisakhi festival in north America is just across the border in Surrey)? Our Muslim and Sikh neighbors welcome visitors who display a sincere interest in their culture and festivals. In addition to enduring friendships that extend past the date of our friendship student’s departure, we have new local multi-cultural friendships that might never have developed if we had not been involved with our visiting friendship student.

What are some of the best activities or experiences you’ve had with students?

IMG_0158_2Some of the most enjoyable times spent with our students have also been the simplest – sharing meals, bike riding, hiking, going out for coffee, watching a movie at home. In some of the countries served by NWCCI, the notion of hiking in the mountains for leisure is novel – people might walk moderate distances for work, but surely not for pleasure, so something as simple as a walk along a forest trail can be a fresh experience. Of course, we have loved bringing students to Seattle for various activities, including Solstice Parades, the Honk Festival and circus performances.  We have ventured further south, as well, and teamed up with another friendship family and taken students on a weekend trip to Portland. We have great memories of that trip, especially biking in the rain in the Pearl District and staying up late with the students after waiting in the long line at Voodoo Donuts.

IMG_6146In dear Bellingham, we have countless positive experiences, including wonderful times with the students in simple, traditional activities like making pumpkin pies, cider pressing, jack-o-lantern carving and (low cost) white elephant gift exchanges.  We brought a couple students to a local performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it was a great cultural education for them, from throwing rice to doing the Time Warp!  For Catalina, one of her dearest memories will always be this: performing Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance with our Turkish student, Gozde, during a Halloween show with a huge crowd. Of note, Gozde decided to Skype her parents that same Halloween night, and she was unrecognizable to them as she was wearing extensive zombie make-up!  What was happening to their daughter??

Truly, we feel incredibly fortunate to have created lasting bonds with our international students. A few have already gotten married, and another two will marry in the near future. If timing and finances were more conducive, we’d be attending all these weddings! We are very happy to see our students grow and change and make thoughtful decisions, and we continue to nurture our relationships, despite time and distance. In our future, we will be planning trips to Turkey and Indonesia; and we are hopeful that we can also one day visit Egypt and Pakistan. Our worlds have intersected, and we continue to bridge gaps with lifelong friendships.

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.


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