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Friends to International Students Handbook for Host Families

INTRODUCTION

More than 2,000 international students from over 100 different countries study at The University of Oklahoma each year. Impressions that these students carry back to their homes are formed by information they acquire in the classroom, but also by their contact with local families.

The goal of Friends to International Students is to assist new international students during their first year at OU as they transition into the OU and Norman community. This program attempts to enrich the life of the community by fostering mutual understanding and appreciation of people of other nations. The Friends to International Students organization is an important addition to the David L. Boren College of International Studies and has as its prime objective, a happier life for every international student while living in Norman.

We hope this handbook will provide friendship families with useful information to relieve any anxieties they may have, prepare them to meet their students and offer suggestions of ways to entertain them. Friendship families can be either a family unit or a single person who desires to make visitors feel at home.

Experience across the nation has shown that such a program is the most effective and mutually rewarding method of bringing together international students and members of the sponsoring community.

LEARNING ACROSS CULTURES

The student's first priority is, of course, his or her academic studies. Many students, however, would like to expand their educational experience to include learning about American politics, economics and culture. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by sharing activities with Americans in the community. In addition, international students are a resource to Americans who want to learn about other countries and cultures.

The relationships that develop between the host family and their international student foster a new appreciation for how others live and view the world and can contribute to achieving one of the principal values of the cross-cultural experience: cultural self-awareness. Because we learn so many of our basic assumptions, values, and behavior patterns at an early age, we rarely think about them as we conduct our daily lives. We tend to assume that most of our behavior and beliefs are "natural," that is, universally experienced. Cultural self-awareness allows us to see that our way of doing things is but one of many different, equally "natural" ways. The ability to accept those differences and respect them helps in building relationships with people from other cultures. 

GETTING ACQUAINTED

Before meeting the student, try to become familiar with his or her country: location and size, form of government, the capital and other major cities, major religions and holidays. The International Programs Coordinators are eager to provide information at your request.

Although it is impossible to become familiar with all the cultural differences, be aware that major differences are likely to exist. The student will be your best resource for learning about his or her culture and many stimulating discussions can occur as you explore cultural differences together.

Be prepared for questions about our form of government and how it works, local history and major trends in American society. Questions about your life-style and what Americans believe in and value are common and equally important.

Just as differences in customs and culture stimulate conversation, so do explorations of world events and how they are viewed from differing perspectives. While neither we, as Americans, nor the international students are necessarily experts on the positions taken by our respective governments, we can learn a great deal by discussing what lies behind governmental actions and how we, as individuals, view particular events.

GETTING IN TOUCH

You have made the decision to develop a friendship with an international student, a friendship that may continue long after the student returns home. If this is your first experience with an international student, the following suggestions may be helpful:

When you receive the name and address of your student, please call the student as soon as possible. (*)

  • Should you experience difficulty reaching your student, please contact the International Programs Coordinators (325-8799 or 325-6497) for updated address information.
  • Show your new student that you care by being particularly warm and welcoming. Be positive and outgoing at this first meeting and you will help him or her feel at ease.
  • For the first visit, many hosts invite students to share a meal or an afternoon or evening of conversation. A written invitation can prevent a misunderstanding about the precise time and place of the meeting, travel arrangements, and how long the visit will last. (*)

GETTING TOGETHER

Don't be surprised if your guest is late. Americans may "live by the clock,” but this is not true in many other cultures. In some countries, for example, the time on the invitation is extended several times before it is accepted. Exchange e-mail addresses and phone numbers with your student so arrangements can be confirmed.

Ask the student what name you should use when addressing him or her. It may take practice to pronounce some names correctly. You will want to tell the student how to address you and your family members as well. Learning a few words of greeting in the student's language can be fun and is always appreciated.

  • In many cultures, guests are offered coffee, tea or a cool drink as soon as they arrive.
  • Many international students are not accustomed to having pets inside the home. Until you know how the student will react, it is advisable to keep pets at a distance.
  • Students can be lonely, especially when they first arrive in the US and they may enjoy talking about their family and friends. If you have children, include them in the conversation. Students often enjoy children because they are easier to converse with and may "substitute" for brothers and sisters at home.
  • Obtain brochures from your Chamber of Commerce, promotional material from your state's Division of Tourism or postcards from local shops. This can give a personal touch and help acquaint your new friend with your region of the country.
  • Many feel that their new student should already have reached a standard of proficiency in English before they arrive in the U.S. For those that have not, the first six weeks will be difficult. They need encouragement from you so that they will gain enough confidence to converse and sharpen their language skills. Sign language will often go a long way in bridging this communication gap.

HELPING YOUR STUDENT LEARN ENGLISH

A common misconception is that if someone is surrounded by English at home, at school, on the radio and TV, he or she will automatically to speak it well. Unfortunately, this is not so. He or she can learn to understand it this way, but can only learn to speak it well through conversation.

Most of us do not tend to have long discussions unless we are trying to solve a problem. We usually speak rapidly, in phrases and incomplete sentences. Try to avoid slang.

Perhaps the single most helpful way to converse is be giving the other person a chance to respond. Don't answer for your own student. Wait long enough for him or her to think of a reply, phrase it in his mind, and then speak. Don't rush.

Yes/No questions provide an answer, but only a short one and often they don't even indicate that the student understood. Ask questions beginning with: "why, how, what?"

AT MEAL TIME

Sharing a relaxed, unhurried meal is a time-honored way for people to get acquainted. Customary ways of serving and eating differ from culture to culture so a few hints may contribute to ensuring that these times are pleasant.

Some food restrictions may exist in many cultures and religions. You should ask your guest when you extend the invitation if there are foods he or she cannot eat. Some students are vegetarians, some eat no pork products, others no beef or shellfish. Many hosts find that chicken is a "safe" meat to serve and that rice is a good choice because it is a staple in many countries. Fruit juice, soft drinks, tea or water are usually preferred to milk, which is rarely served to adults in other countries. Rich desserts, for which Americans have a special fondness, are often unknown abroad and your guest may prefer a piece of fruit or simply a cup of tea at the end of the meal. (*)

Plan for the first meal to be simple - easy for you to prepare and serve and easy for the student who is trying to learn your customs. If you start the meal with a prayer, song, or silence, continue to do so, but explain the custom to your guest. (*)

Conversing while eating is not the custom in all cultures. A quiet guest may be exhibiting cultural patterns from home and may be embarrassed to be asked questions intended to promote conversation during a meal. (*) Inquiring about customs that relate to foods, meal preparation and serving in the student's culture may help the student feel comfortable about asking similar questions of you. (*)

KEEPING IN TOUCH

Some international students have commented that they feel Americans are insincere. Mistaking American "friendliness" for "friendship," they are disappointed when relationships do not take on a deeper meaning. In many other cultures friendship is reserved for a very few people. It is based on mutual respect and involves unlimited obligation. In the United States, close friendships certainly exist, but Americans also have many "friends," among whom the international student may be only one. Talking about how friendships develop in the United States may help the student achieve a realistic view of what can be expected of his or her American friends. Many students keenly feel the loss of their friends and relatives when they leave home. It is important, therefore, to keep in touch with the student so that he or she feels wanted and accepted. A brief note, phone call or birthday card can help remind the student that, even if you have not seen each other for a while, he or she has not been forgotten. In time, students create a new life here and feelings of loneliness and uncertainty become less sharp as they make adjustments.

During the student’s first visit, you will probably discover there are things you would enjoy doing together. Include the student in your activities such as church or club meetings, sports or cultural events and holiday celebrations or picnics. Again, a written invitation, followed by a phone call, helps your guest understand the event. Be sure to indicate dress, beginning and ending times, and whether the event includes a meal.

Students may be reluctant to accept invitations during busy-school periods, so do not be disappointed if the student must decline in favor of a test or term paper. Make it clear that he or she is not obligated to accept every invitation and can turn down an invitation when it interferes with academic schedules.

Some hosts invite students to attend church with them. It is especially important to tell students they can decline if they prefer not to attend religious services. Proselytizing is not acceptable; it is hoped that all hosts and students will respect each other's religious beliefs. Students should always be informed in advance if a program or event will be religious in nature. (*)

MONEY

In the unlikely event that your student should ask to borrow money from you, please refer him or her to the International Programs Coordinators for scholarship or emergency fund opportunities. Under no circumstances should you lend any amount to a student. Refraining from transactions of any monies protects you and the student.

EASING ADJUSTMENT

When students leave home to study, they are beginning a new life, often alone. Adjustment to a new culture and environment is not accomplished in a few days; on the contrary it can take a year or, in some cases, longer.

People who enter a new culture almost inevitably suffer from disorientation. The physical and social environment contains much that is new and hard to understand. It takes time to learn how to get around, do laundry, buy food and other necessities, and become comfortable with the new society. It is exhausting and difficult to speak in a second language, understand the meanings that lie behind spoken and non-verbal language, and learn new behavior.

This disorientation is generally termed "culture shock." Culture shock can manifest itself in a number of ways: headache, withdrawal, irritability, over-sleeping, etc. You can do much to ease the student's adjustment and culture shock by being aware that this is a normal and "real" experience that most sojourners encounter. You can provide assistance by listening patiently and offering support when it is needed. In the event that you think the situation becomes more serious and you think they need additional help or counseling, please contact the International Programs Coordinators so they can connect the student with proper resources. 

BENEFITS

Hosting a foreign student can be a rich experience and often the relationship continues to grow after the student returns home.  The rewards range from expanding your understanding of the world, to discovering a new and valuable friend. Through such personal satisfactions, it is believed by many that friendship between individuals from different countries can contribute to greater peace and understanding. (*)

LIAISON WITH INTERNATIONAL STUDENT SERVICES

 A committee of faculty and staff within The University of Oklahoma’s David L. Boren College of International Studies manages the host family program of Friends to International Students. The International Programs Coordinators are your direct point of contact should you run into any issues or need assistance with your international student.  The University of Oklahoma appreciates the urgently needed hospitality that members of FIS extend to its international students from around the world.

(*) PLEASE NOTE THAT SOME PASSAGES WERE TAKEN FROM NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR FOREIGN STUDENT AFFAIRS BOOKLET TITLED: FRIENDSHIP WITH A FOREIGN STUDENT (1988).