By CARLA NELSON
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — When Cassie Chen moved to Auburn from a small city in China three years ago to pursue her master’s degree, she was far from a culture she knew and family that she loved. But with the help of a local program, Friends of Internationals, Chen now has a family away from home.
Friends of Internationals is a community network of volunteers that works to connect incoming international college students with American hosts. These hosts welcome students by helping them learn about local culture and sharing memorable experiences with them.
“I can’t appreciate more how this program helped my life in Auburn,’’ Chen said, who was matched with retired professor Nancy Kincaid. “I am so blessed to have Nancy as my family friend. It’s like having a family here at Auburn that backs me up no matter what happened to me. I always enjoyed sharing everything that happened during my school and life with Nancy, just like talking to my mom.’’
The number of international graduate students attending Auburn rises each year, and nearly 300 students will relocate to Auburn this fall. Through Friends of Internationals, these students, who have their own housing and have passed an English proficiency test, can feel more at home. And it’s not just the students who benefit.
“As a former college professor, I love to talk and meet new people and see the world through their eyes,’’ Kincaid said. “I love Auburn and wanted Cassie to know, understand, and maybe love America as I do. While I wanted to help her in any way I could, I found instead a real friend who is so close to my heart.’’
Founded in 2009, the program works with Auburn University to pair hosts with incoming students.
“The goal is to promote cross-cultural experiences, to allow internationals to have the opportunity to experience the local community, the local culture and help them integrate into a new country, but also a new culture,’’ said Laura Fuller, special projects coordinator of cross cultural programs for Auburn University. “We have many matches that really enjoy each other and they end up really being like the heart of the family.’’
Students and families must submit an application to participate. The hosts commit to a nine-month agreement to spend time with the students at least once per month. Ninety international students were matched with host families last year.
Opelika resident Angela George and her family hosted two Chinese students in 2016 and plan to be a host this year as well. George said she believes it is a great experience for her children.
“I really want my kids to have that experience with other cultures,’’ George said. “I think exposing them to this opportunity, since we’re so close to an organization that does this, it just made sense for our family to continue to do it.’’
Chen said the experience has helped her adjust to life in the United States, and Auburn, in a meaningful way.
“Nancy and I have had a lot of wonderful memories together and shared happiness and sorrow with each other,’’ Chen said. “Sometimes we just sit and chat and didn’t realize a whole afternoon has passed. I just can’t imagine what my life would be without this program, without Nancy in my life.’’
“By reaching out to others, we always gain so much more in our lives,’’ Kincaid said. “I see the program as a bridge for some, but a lifelong connection for others.’’