Want to help?
To find out more about the program or to host an international student, contact Georgia Southern University's Center for International Studies at (912) 478-0332 or visit www.georgiasouthern.edu/international and follow the prompts.
The students come from all over the world and arrive at Georgia Southern University without knowing a single person in the area. These international students are here to study and learn, but often find themselves feeling lost and alone.
Many of the students take advantage of a program offered by GSU's Center for International Studies, called International Extended Families. The program matches American host families with international students, providing students with a local connection and someone to turn to for assistance and friendship.
"We encourage the families to reach out to the students and meet once or twice a month," said Angie Threatte, the university's coordinator of international programming and events. "We also have dinners once a month to see how things are going."
Fifteen to 20 local families currently take part in the program, serving more than 30 students.
"We are in desperate need of more local American families to serve as hosts, as we have more students than families," says Blessing Punungwe, a graduate assistant and International Extended Families coordinator.
Shirley Wilkes and her husband, Ken, host several of the students. Wilkes said she originally "adopted," as she likes to say, two international students, but when someone from the program asked her if she knew anyone who could take another student at Christmastime, she felt like she couldn't say "no."
"If that was my child, far from home at Christmas," Wilkes said, "I'd want her to have somewhere to go. So, I called and said to send her on to my house."
Wilkes currently hosts four students.
She said she often includes the students in a meal at her home or treats them to dinner at a local restaurant. Sometimes, Ken and Shirley's daughter comes along too, giving the students another generation to bond with. The students spent Halloween evening in her home, handing out treats to the visiting children.
Wilkes sometimes takes her "adopted" children to Walmart or on other errands because they have no means of transportation.
Speaking of hosting the students, Wilkes said: "It's not a burden at all. I balance my time with my life and the kids, and it is such a blessing."
Thrilled to be able to assist the students with American culture, Wilkes quickly adds with excitement, "I'm learning, too!"
Wilkes blushed with pride when she shared, "We had a meeting and my Korean international student stood up and said she was becoming so fond of me and that I'd become her second mom."
Sori Lee and Sang-In Kim, both from South Korea, enjoy spending time with the Wilkes family. Lee said having a host family was the best opportunity to learn about American families.
Chuckling, she said, "Before coming here, I always dreamed the typical American family [was] like the American drama ‘Modern Family.'"
But in seriousness, Lee said coming here alone was difficult, and it was hard to adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings. After meeting her family, however, it was much easier.
"The whole family really welcomed me and was really nice and kind," she said. "It was really helpful."
Lee enjoys dinner at the Wilkeses, going to the Farmers Market downtown, visiting homes with Christmas lights and decorations, and being a part of Halloween festivities.
"We had dinner and met some kids, knocking the door ‘trick or treat,'" she said. "I felt that, wow, I am in the U.S.!
"I'm really lucky to meet this family and experience the traditional American family culture," Lee continued. "They're really special to me. My family back home always says, ‘Please give my thanks to the American family.'"
Kim echoed Lee's feelings about the International Extended Families experience and said he most appreciates the emotional comfort from having a host family.
"When I came here last semester, there was no one that I knew and I felt lonely," Kim said. "I always wanted to back to my home. I missed my family and even regretted coming here. I seriously needed someone to rely on at that time. After I met Shirley, I felt reassured to live here, and I don't feel loneliness anymore."
Another benefit of the program, according to Kim, is his improved English skills after spending time with the host family.
"Also by spending time with my local family, I experience American family culture such as how they communicate with each other, how they have a meal together, or how they celebrate their family's anniversary," he said. "These kinds of things might be nothing to Americans, but to me, it is very unique and precious experiences."
Gail and Ed Davis also host an international student.
"We love to travel and learn about other cultures," Gail Davis said, "and we enjoy teaching students about our culture."
The Davises host a young Chinese international student who enjoys cooking for her host "parents."
"She knows what we like and cooks for us often," Gail Davis said.
And in turn, she made sure her student will return to China knowing how to prepare that all-important, Southern nectar-delectable drink.
"She wanted to visit as many states as possible while here, so I took her to South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee, and my friend there taught her to make sweet tea," Davis said.