Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Host Program Builds Bridges to Cultural Understanding

Dec. 4, 2007 — Cristian Carlos A Bodo, a student new to the University of Virginia and to the United States, was in dire need of some basic amenities, like a refrigerator. He was lost, no idea where to start, until his local family "took me to the store, gave me advice on what to buy and helped me carry my new acquisition home. I've no idea of how I could have done that without them, since, being new to the country, I didn't have many connections back then."

Bodo was lucky enough to have a family who had agreed to help him adjust to life in Charlottesville. Whether that was buying a fridge or talking about "things I missed the most from home, and which things were more useful to help me adapt to the new language and environment," his hosts were always there "with a smile, a friendly face, and a legitimate interest to know more about me and my culture."

As U.Va. students broaden their international horizons by increasingly traveling and studying abroad, international students come to Charlottesville for the same reason — to learn and experience a new culture.

The influx of international students, many of whom have never been in the U.S. before, presents a unique need and opportunity to the Charlottesville community. While they need help adjusting to American — and University — life, visiting international students also offer local residents a window into another culture, without having to buy plane tickets.

To that end, the organization that is now the International Host Programs, was formed in 1964 to "address the needs of the international community while at the University of Virginia." At its heart are three core values: "Cross-cultural understanding, cross-cultural appreciation and cross-cultural friendship."

Though not formally a part of U.Va., IHP maintains close ties with the University's International Studies Office. The IHP began as an aid to incoming international students, has grown to encompass much more over the course of its 43 years.

The IHP now comprises three different programs: the Community Host Program, the Scholars Welcome Network and the International Women's Group.

The Community Host program matches local families with international students who are coming to U.Va.

"Hosts help students acclimate to life outside of the University and participate in cultural exchange," said Lisa Eorio, the IHP liaison to the University and a host for several years. "I think [international students] like the safety net. I would. At the beginning is when they need it the most, because it's terribly intimidating."

Bodo, too, saw the initial importance of the Host Program. "It's even more valuable at a time during the first months after your arrival when the feelings of cultural
isolation, loneliness and homesickness are at their peak."

The Community Host program, says chairwoman Peggy Straughan — also a host herself — is designed for families "to show students around Charlottesville and to have them into your home. I think that's what got me into being a host. I heard that 80 percent of international students never see the inside of an American home, and I thought that was just criminal. If they come, what kind of impression will they get of Americans if they're never invited into a home?"

The Scholars Welcome Network is becoming increasingly popular for incoming U.Va. faculty and staff. Similar to the Community Host program, local families host scholars and their families, helping them to adapt and adjust to life in America. 

The International Women's Group addresses the needs of the families of students and scholars. A fellowship program meets about every other Thursday morning at Meadows Presbyterian Church, and the group participates in activities ranging from a Diwali Festival of Lights to a bingo day. Transportation and child care are provided, and the time is a welcome chance for families to come together and build relationships.

The overall effect of these programs, says Eorio, is enormous, both on the international students and their hosts. "It's good for us, almost more than them," she said. "It's hard to demonize someone after you've spent that much time with them. They're your friends, your family."

As more and more students seek to participate in the programs, more hosts are needed, and the program is currently short on hosts. For about 48 new international students this fall, there were about 40 hosts, leaving some families to double up.

"We need to get the word out to faculty and staff," Straughan said. "We went to something at the Law School, and our student introduced us as our host family. Everyone there was like, what is that?"

Getting involved is easy, she said. Applications can be found at www.virginia.edu/iso/ic/ihp.

The response from those involved in the program is overwhelmingly positive, from students and families alike.

"The neat thing is, they're no different than we are," Straughan said. "It's the similarities you get hooked up with. You have things to talk about from the get-go. People are brought together. It's great."  

Written by David Pierce

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