Program pairing international students with host families looking to expand

When senior Paloma Juno applied last year for a program that paired her with an American host family for Thanksgiving, she ended up finding a new family in her home away from home. Now, the same program is expanding to include the Easter holiday.

“I was very satisfied with my experience and felt really happy,” said Juno, an exchange student from France.

University Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship-Graduate and Faculty Ministries will be expanding the program, which paired 59 UM students with 26 families in 2017 and more than 100 students in 2011 when it first started.

UCF and IVCF-GFM reach out to churches in the Miami community that have supported student ministry in the past, and UCF makes sure that the families provide safe places for the students to visit. Some families have hosted students before. New host families are required to participate in a mandatory orientation in which someone from UCF or IVCF-GFM meets at least one family member.

UCF and IVCF-GFM also ensure that international students are accommodated. On the application form, students can indicate food preferences they have, languages they speak and modes of transportation they use.

For the Thanksgiving program last semester, Juno, a double major in management and cinema, said she applied because she would be spending Thanksgiving break by herself and felt homesick. Juno said she wanted to get to feel what it’s like to be a part of an American family celebrating Thanksgiving.

She was paired with a Peruvian-American family, and since she also has Peruvian roots, the experience felt “really warm” – like being with her own family.

Noéline Prins, a postdoctoral research scientist with the UM Department of Biomedical Engineering, was an international student from Sri Lanka in 2011 when she first participated in the Thanksgiving program. Prins wanted to celebrate one of the United States’ biggest holidays, Thanksgiving, so she applied for the program and now still keeps in touch with her host family.

Prins, a member of both UCF and IVCF-GFM and the leader of the group effort that brought the program back to life, said the feedback they received from students and host families was very positive and is why the program is expanding to continue into the spring semester for the Easter holiday.

The program runs on a first-come, first-serve basis. They expect fewer host families for Easter than Thanksgiving.

“We encourage students to apply early to not be disappointed,” Prins said. “Any student can apply regardless of religion or no religion at all … The families will be Christian, since it’s a Christian holiday.”

For Juno, making a connection with her host family and having a special time with them was the best part of the program. She said she felt that it expanded her experience of living in the United States by making her more aware of the country, cultures and traditions.

“I still keep in touch with my family,” Juno said. “They texted me last week, and we’re planning to meet during spring break.”

Though Juno isn’t religious, she said she’ll “probably” apply for the Easter program.

Senior Kexin Qiu said though she has a general idea of what Easter is, she still wants to know more.

“I don’t fully understand Easter nor have experienced it,” said Qiu, a double major in art and creative advertising. “So if I have a chance to celebrate it with local families, I will definitely apply for it.”

For the Easter program on April 1, families and students will go to church and then have a meal together – usually brunch. Students are welcome to both activities in order to experience Easter from a traditional American perspective.

“I want to encourage other students to apply for the program because it’s a really great way to experience the American culture,” Juno said. “Of course, you study here, but at the same time, if you just stay all the time on campus, I think you can’t really feel the American culture as much as if you go out there and just meet new people, get this experience.”

Qiu said she believes the program not only provides international students with a chance to experience and understand a foreign culture and religion better but to learn and grow outside of school through communication and “precious life experiences” that are not taught in classes.

“Most international students are afraid or shy of speaking in English,” Qiu said. “And participating in such programs can push themselves to jump out of their own comfort zone and increase their oral language skills.”

The deadline to apply for the Easter program is March 23. To apply, international students should fill out an online form.