Home away from home

Representing 30 countries around the globe, Southern Arkansas University’s 100-plus international students find support and friendship in the southern Arkansas community and campus programs.

Leaving their families to travel around the world in pursuit of a quality education takes courage and perseverance and requires adapting. According to Director of International Student Services Claudia “Penny” Lyons, every student goes through culture shock to some degree as they begin life in America. The trials that often arise with language barriers and the legalities related to studying abroad can be overwhelming. She and the other international office staff, Student Advisor Jason Martisek and IT Specialist Peter Situmeang work tirelessly to help bridge the gaps during the transition.

“The most difficult issue is for the students to get a student visa once he or she is accepted for admission,” said Lyons. “Sometimes the students are rejected and must go back again to the consulates with supporting documents. They are experiencing so many new things, living in a new country away from their family.”

With the expense of travel and distance, international students have to make plans during the holidays. Even though special accommodations are made for the students at a nominal expense, the residence halls and other services are closed during nationally recognized holidays and seasonal breaks.

The Friendship Family Program saw a renewed energy when Mark Harmon of El Dorado became aware of the unique needs of the visiting students. Beginning as an informal program, local religious leaders, SAU staff, faculty, and other area residents supported the program and began inviting students into their homes for the holidays.

Harmon and his wife, Vicki, had become acquainted with a girl from Kenya through their daughter, who served a mission in China and later enrolled in Beijing University. They came to learn of the difficulties that face foreign students in seeking educational opportunities in America through their new friend.

Brittney volunteered her parents to help her friend. With their friendship, Doris made it through the process, passing her ACT and getting her visa to attend nursing school at SAU.

While attending the international orientation with Doris in August of 2007, Harmon sat across from a student from China named Xi Wu (pronounced she-woo). The friendship was immediate.

“One thing struck me about Xi Wu,” said Harmon. “We had pizza that day. He had never had pizza before. He stuck his fork into a piece and was holding it up studying it under the light. I thought that was funny.”

The Harmons hosted Xi Wu for the holidays, and over the next four years forged a bond stronger than friendship. Xi Wu became not only a cherished member of the Harmon family, but a member of the Wyatt Baptist Church family that welcomed him and others so openly.

Xi Wu said that it took him at least two years to adjust to the American culture, but the faculty, staff, students, and families like the Harmons were so encouraging, helpful, and welcoming that it made the transition much easier.

“They did a lot of things to make me feel at home. They treated all of us as their own and introduced us to new things,” said Xi Wu. “They let us share in their experiences and traditions and took me with them on trips. The Friendship Family Program definitely made my experience at SAU better and allowed me to see outside of the campus to see new things and so much more of what this country has to offer.”

The Harmons traveled to China this summer to spend time with Xi Wu and his parents, Wu Wei and Xhen Xhang, before coming back to America to help Xi Wu move to Indiana where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Purdue University.

Dennis and Regina Minor, of Magnolia, have experienced a very similar bond with international students they have welcomed into their lives. They shared a host of warm memories made with their “adopted” students.

“Our first student was Sahara Hainju from Nepal, who was in the nursing program at SAU,” said Regina. “I’m a nurse, so I kind of mentored her through it and encouraged her, since nursing is a really hard program even if English is your first language.”

According to Regina, the opportunity had reciprocal blessings.

“I have no living children, so for me, I kind of needed somebody to mother. She was somebody who needed us and we enjoyed her being around us,” she said. “Her cousin also came to SAU and we adopted him too. They taught us so much about their culture and they learned about ours by spending time with us.”

As her American dad, Dennis Minor escorted Sahara on the football field when she was crowned homecoming queen. Many of them refer to the Minors as “Mama” and “Papa.”

Even though all of hers have graduated and moved on in their lives, she stays in touch with them and even attended former SAU student Barsha Baral’s wedding in St. Louis. Both girls now reside in the Dallas area.

“They can pay a nominal fee to stay on campus during the holidays, but they are without transportation and on-campus cafeteria options,” said Regina. “Even if you aren’t able to allow them to stay with you, you can still invite them for meals or visits. You won’t regret the experience.”

According to Lyons, the FFP is not meant to be a full-time home-stay program, therefore it does not require big commitments of time or money. The only requirements for host families are an open mind, an ability to provide a safe, fun atmosphere, a willingness to share their family experiences with an international student, and to have an interest in the culture of the student.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Friendship Family Program can contact the International Student Services office at (870) 235-5149 or (870) 235-4082.