Grinnell, Iowa - People sometimes say that Grinnell College brings the world to the prairie. That may be especially true next fall, as the college prepares for what may be a record number of international students.
This past academic year, about 13 percent of Grinnell’s students came from outside the U.S. But this fall, the number may be as high as 18 percent in the class of 2018, says Karen Edwards, Grinnell’s associate dean and director of international student affairs. “International students bring valuable perspectives and experiences to the life of the college,” Edwards says. “They help make the world a smaller place.”
To help international students adjust to life in the U.S., and to build connections between students and community members, Edwards’ office is looking for community hosts to serve as Friends of International Students. Through this program, local families and individuals have a chance to get to know a student from another country while helping that student adjust to life in Grinnell, and in the U.S. More than 120 families already are involved; Edwards hope that 50 more will sign up this summer. (For information on signing up, see “To Apply,” below.)
What’s Involved with Being a Community Host?
Historically, Grinnell’s host family program had a residential component upon initial arrival —but today students stay on campus, Edwards says. “The program is about friendship across cultures, generations and communities,” Edwards emphasizes. FIS families provide a source of information about American families and customs, as well as a bridge to life off campus, she explains. Families and students often share meals and do fun things together, learning from each other about traditions and customs.
JoAnn Britton and her husband, George, have been active in FIS since shortly after they retired to Grinnell in 2008. The Brittons have hosted two students—the first from Baghdad, and another, from New Delhi, who graduated this past May. The Brittons are eager to meet their new FIS student in August.
“The opportunity to get to know someone from another culture isn’t always available to everyone,” JoAnn Britton says. “It’s rewarding to get to know about their background and their experience.” And Britton says she has liked being a “connector” between students and the community. “I like to be of assistance when needed.”
Britton notes that the FIS experience will vary from family to family—but “it can work,” she says, “for families in lots of different situations: retired people, single people, families with or without children.”
Britton says some students need a lot of advice, while others are very independent. But common factors in most FIS relationships involve food—“we often get together for meals on campus, because that encourages conversation”—and a car. “Some of the best conversations happen when you’re driving somewhere.”
Ashley Grundler and her husband, Chris, became involved with the Friends of International Students program four years ago. They’ve hosted two students—one from Bulgaria, and another from Brazil—both of whom graduated in May.
“We signed up before we had our daughter,” Ashley Grundler notes, “so our students got to watch her grow. And she’s loved getting to know about their cultures.” For her own part, Grundler says that she particularly enjoyed having two international students from different countries be part of the family at the same time. “They learned from each other,” she said, “and we learned from them, too.”
Grundler says that the best part of the FIS relationship is “just hanging out. We shared meals, we talked, we hosted a birthday party.”
“It’s easier than you think,” Grundler says. “There’s no reason not to do it!”
Nearly 90 percent of Grinnell’s 200 international students have a local family through FIS. And Edwards says that by their senior year, international students consistently report that their host family experience was among their most positive connections at Grinnell.
Local families involved with the FIS program report the same level of satisfaction. “I’ve found it to be a very positive part of living in Grinnell,” says JoAnn Britton. “Hopefully, it was valuable to the students as well.”
To Apply for the Friends of International Students Program
To become a community host, go to https://bit.ly/grinnell-fis and fill out a simple application form. There is no cost to apply or to participate. Families and students are matched in August—so applications are especially encouraged before July 1. For more information, contact Grinnell College’s Office of International Students (641/269-3703), or one of the FIS volunteer coordinators: JoAnn Britton, Ashley Grundler or Rachel Bly.