‘Frontline diplomacy’

Kay King (lower right) shares a meal at her home with a group of international students from the University of Richmond, including one she and her husband hosted through a program at UR.
It's been more than two years since Henrico residents Jeff and Jessica Pilson welcomed a female VCU student from China into their home as part of a host program the university operates. To call the experience a positive one might be an understatement – especially to the family's three young children.

"My girls think she is part of the family," Jessica Pilson said. "Whenever they tell people how many people we have in the family, they say six."

The Pilsons are among several county families who participate as hosts for international students attending VCU and the University of Richmond. Though the time commitment varies by family, their overall experiences seem similarly positive.

"I was slightly leery, just not having any idea what we'd be getting into," recalled Pilson. "But it's been wonderful, and some of what makes it wonderful is her personality and her culture."

Henrico residents Dennis and Kay King have hosted a number of high school students through their connections with the YMCA of Greater Richmond and Rotary International, as well as several international UR students, in recent years. Serving as hosts has provided the couple with an opportunity to give back.

"We don't have children," King said, "but we have a lot to offer. We wanted to make a contribution to young people's lives. The students really like it. They like simple things like petting the dog, being a part of a family when they're way away from home, having an adult friend in the community."

Both the VCU and UR programs have a number of international students who are interested in spending time with, or living with, local host families but who currently can't be accommodated because of a dearth of participating hosts.

The majority of international students who attend college in the U.S. – more than 75 percent, according to a study cited by VCU Associate Director of International Student Recruitment Bob Wood – never set foot inside an American household during their time here. For that reason, host families who do welcome students into their homes can
play a significant role in the lives of those students, according to Wood.

"It's frontline diplomacy," he said.

Programs benefit students, hosts
Since Wood arrived at VCU in the early 1990s, he has worked to expand the services the university provides to its full-time international undergraduate and graduate students (who currently number about 1,400).

"Part of the reason an international student comes to the states to get an education and study is to experience America," he said, "and you're not just going to do that downtown on a 32,000-student campus."

Today, VCU operates five programs for international students, each with varying levels of commitment from local hosts.

The Host Family program is a residential program in which students live with their hosts for a period of time and pay rent at a rate agreeable to both parties. Some students stay with their hosts for just a few months, while others stay several years. (A handful of students participate currently, and there is significant interest from other students but a lack of local hosts, Wood said.)

In the Friendship Family program, students are paired with families to experience the variety of American life. They may attend meals at their hosts' homes, attend sporting events with them, go shopping or participate together in any number of other activities.

Through the Conversation Partner program, students meet for an hour each week with hosts to practice conversational English.

The International Coffee Hour program invites students, staff and community visitors to gather weekly to socialize in a casual setting.

And each year on major holidays, a number of local hosts invite international students to their homes as a way to give them a taste of a uniquely American holiday, since most students don't return to their homes during breaks.

"One of our families told us [after hosting a student for Thanksgiving dinner] that they enjoyed not having to hear Uncle Tom's same story that he'd told for the past 20 years," Wood joked.

Most of the VCU students who are interested in living with host families are Saudi Arabian males, Wood said.

"They have a very strong family orientation there. Many live in houses that are 15,000 or 20,000 square feet, but six families will live there with parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts – extended families," he said. "You grow up, get married, raise kids and all live there together. They really pride [themselves on] that extended family unit, and I hear from the students [when they arrive here] that they kind of feel isolated or lost. “

Pilson and her husband became interested in participating in VCU's program because they have a heart for missions, she said, but aren't able to leave their home to travel abroad now that they have a young family. She previously had taught in Thailand during a summer and learned of the VCU program because they attended the same church as
Wood.

The student they were matched with fit in well almost immediately. Though many women in China don't drive, she learned while living with the Pilsons and, like all international students in the VCU program, was able to provide her own transportation to and from campus and around town.

"She did drive over some of my flowers at the front of my driveway when she was learning," Pilson recalled with a laugh. Living with the family has helped the young woman experience a broader range of American life, she said.

"If she hadn't lived with us, she would have pretty much immersed herself in her own culture," Pilson said. "All her friends here are Chinese, and she still spends all her time with them."

More than expected
The University of Richmond is home to 321 full-time international undergraduate and graduate students – about 100 of whom participate in some type of interaction with staff or alumni hosts, according to Krittika Onsanit of UR's Office of International Education. (The UR program is open only to hosts who work at, or graduated from, the university.)

Students don't live with their hosts but do see them regularly and visit their homes for meals or travel around the region to go shopping, dining, sightseeing or participate in other events and activities.

For the Kings, who have hosted a student from Great Britain and another from China through the UR program and who currently are hosting a recently graduated German couple through the YMCA, the benefits of being hosts are numerous.

"In meeting international students, you also meet their friends who are also international students," Kay King said. "On two particular nights at our house, we felt as if we had a United Nations meeting."

The Kings have taken students for trips on their sailboat and have visited other local attractions with them in years past, in addition to hosting birthday parties and other gatherings in their home.

"My impression is just how appreciative [students] are," she said. "They're very expressive about how they don’t expect anything. They just expect to come to school [in the U.S.], and all these extras are just a lot more than what they expected.

"There are just so many benefits for everyone."

For VCU's Wood, a lasting impression of his school's program came after matching a student with a local family for a six-month period.

"He came to thank me every day for one month," Wood recalled. "He said, 'thank you for my family – I will come every day to thank you for my family.'"

For details about the international student programs offered by VCU and to learn how to participate, visit http://www.global.vcu.edu/students/connections/connected.html or call Bob Wood at (804) 828-0808. For details about the programs offered by UR and participation information, staff members or alumni should call (804) 287-6499.
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