The college has taken steps to restart a program that will allow international students to connect with local families. According to Assistant Director of International Student Services Rebecca Eckart, the International Friendship Program will begin in September 2015.
Students interested in participating would be paired with a local family who had applied to host a Knox student. The students would still live on campus, but would spend time with their host family, Eckart said.
She said that the program would give international students a chance to learn more about American life outside of a college setting. Students might go over to their host family’s house for dinner, game nights or run errands with them. Host families would also be invited to campus events.
“Life at college is a very specific context and I think getting to know a family or community members would give them insight into other contexts in America and it would be a great opportunity for people in Galesburg to learn from somebody from another country or another culture that they wouldn’t probably interact with otherwise,” Eckart said.
According to Eckart, a similar program existed at Knox in the past and her office is trying to restart the program. She said she will be launching it in the fall of 2015, but all interested international students could likely participate in it, even if they are not freshmen.
“I think this program is going to take some time to grow and certainly as it grows over hopefully the next few years we’ll be able to include more and more people, but I think ideally it would be open to any international student who is interested — whether it’s a first year or a senior,” she said.
Senior Ayesha Ismael Fariz, who is from Malaysia, was able to connect with a local family when she came to Knox, despite the program not being in place.
She said one of her family friends, who was a Knox alumni, connected her to Professor of Physics and Registar Chuck Schulz and his wife Faye, who became a host family for her while she’s been on campus.
“When I first arrived here with my mom, they let us stay over for a couple of days before the dorms opened,” she said. “They introduced me to a couple of board games, sometimes they would have me over for dinner and we’d make Mexican food together.”
The program may also be helpful for international students in emergency situations who need help or support. Sophomore Diandra Soemardi, who is from Indonesia, said she thinks this is an important draw of the program. She also said that it would be a nice opportunity for students to get off-campus.
“Most international students come here without family, so we’re here pretty much all alone, so it would be nice to have a host family that takes care of us. Pretty much deals with not only food and a place to hang out, but it’s super important for emergencies,” Soemardi said.
Families interested in hosting students can apply online to be a host family. Eckart said that she has started to recruit families a bit, but will do so more heavily throughout Spring Term. She said that she hopes to find similarities between students and families in order to better match them.
“The point of it is just to really get an idea of what families are interested, what their goals would be, whether they have any cultural or language experience, whether they have particular areas of the world that are of interest to them — things that will help us try to match families and students together,” Eckart said.
According to Eckart, there are currently about 155 international students on campus. In 2014, 42 freshmen international students enrolled at Knox in the fall. She said that if families are willing to host multiple students, they would be able to do so in order to get more students involved.
“If you come to Knox, you will find people who can talk to you in your language, so you might tend to stay together with those people. I think this program should force those people to communicate more with people here rather than the people who speak the same language,” freshman Kosuke Nishitani said.
Nishitani moved from Japan to Texas when he was 12 and went to high school in the United States. He said that he wouldn’t have participated in the program if it had been available when he came to Knox, but probably would have if he had not lived in America for several years already.
Eckart said that she hopes to get 25 to 30 families interested in hosting students in order to accommodate the freshman class as well as upperclassmen if families are willing to take multiple students.
Soemardi said she thinks it is most important that freshmen get to participate in the program.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the top priority because I’m probably going to be a junior by then,” Soemardi said. “I think it’s really important for first years to get that connection. Just so they can feel safe. Because they’re brand new to this country, which is super weird. So knowing more people that you can trust is really important.”
Soemardi spoke at the student walkout last spring. She said one of the most difficult parts of transitioning to Knox was finding people she could relate with, as she was the only Indonesian on campus at the time.
“It would be ideal if the family has some sort of cultural connection to the international student … For me it was really hard because I was the only one, so I couldn’t do that with most people,” she said.
Freshman Zoe Luo, who is from China, said that one of the challenges she has faced after coming to Knox is understanding American culture and more social ways of speaking.
She said that she has been able to make friends on campus and adjust to academics, but would like to participate in the program next year to learn about American culture on a deeper level.
“Sophomore year, I’ll have already made some friends on campus and want to know more about deep, cultural English or have more of a relationship with the local people here.”
Luo suggested that international students connect with students who are local to Galesburg and spend time with their families as a possible option to spearhead the program.
Ismael-Fariz said that she thinks the program is a good idea and is in support of it, but the concerns she might have would be whether families and students would connect and get along and that there could be a language barrier between them.
“I’m sure when the program is first released that there will be a lot of tweaking that needs to be done, but I hope it works out. Knox wouldn’t have been the same for me if I hadn’t have met Faye and Chuck,” she said.