SRU’s Friendship Families program helps international students feel at home

Families inline

The Patricelli family from Butler hosted two Slippery Rock University international students for dinner Feb. 16 as part of the SRU Friendship Family Program. From left are Danni He, a freshman from Shanghai, China; Zulfiqar Essa, a freshman from Gilgit, Pakistan; January Latshaw; Lisa Patricelli, clerk typist in the SRU Office of Global Engagement; Brent Patricelli, a senior environmental geoscience major; and Kearsten Ihlenfeld, ’15.

Feb. 23, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For college students who are feeling homesick, sometimes the best remedy is visiting their family and enjoying a home-cooked meal. For international students at Slippery Rock University, traveling back home to their families is not an option, but a program at SRU is doing the next best thing: matching them with a local family to give them a sense of being at home.

The Friendship Family Program, organized by the SRU Office of Global Engagement, connects local families with an international student with the intent of making them feel more comfortable in their new community. Friendship Families do not provide the student housing or financial assistance, but rather build connections by inviting the student to meals at their home or at restaurants, including them in holiday celebrations or taking them to sporting events, shopping malls or the movies.

"(The scope of the program is defined by) whatever the preference is of the Friendship Family and whatever they're able to provide," said Noora Alie, assistant director of international student services, who vets applications for both the families and students. "The students are appreciative of any outreach."

According to Alie, the Friendship Family Program is not just an antidote to homesickness, it's a learning experience for both the students and the families.

"It allows the students to share their culture and their experiences from their home country with faculty, staff and local community members," said Alie, who has matched international students with four families so far this semester. "I've had members of the community who came to me and said, 'I just want my children to be exposed to different types of cultures,' and they can't get that anywhere else, but being a Friendship Family is an opportunity for that."

For international student Danni He, a freshman exchange student from Shanghai, China, having a family to visit on Chinese New Year, Feb. 16, was both a learning and comforting experience.

Although only one student is typically matched with a family, He and Zulfiqar Essa, a freshman sponsored international student from Gilgit, Pakistan, visited the family home of Lisa Patricelli, clerk typist in SRU's Office for Global Engagement, who lives in Butler.

"Being where I work I know the students who are coming in are homesick," Patricelli said. "I would hope that if my kids were in a similar situation that someone would give them a family experience. I just want to let them know that somebody cares outside of the University."

Patricelli, who was initially unaware that Feb. 16 was Chinese New Year when she scheduled time with He and Essa, asked He what she would normally do for the holiday.

"Danni said everybody gets together and the family has dinner and they sit around and talk and laugh and I said, 'Well, that's what we're going to do tonight,'" said Patricelli, who prepared a meal for the two students, her four adult children and three grandchildren.

The family and guests enjoyed a Pittsburgh and American inspired menu: salads topped with ranch dressing and a pile of French fries for the entrée and apple pie for dessert.

"This is the most important festival in China when all the family members go back home for reunions," said He, who would normally help her mother cook on the holiday but instead helped Patricelli prepare the meal. "Being together with her family partly released my homesickness. The atmosphere in her home made me feel comfortable and at ease."

"We see that (international students) are here but we don't realize what they left back home," Patricelli said. "They left their families and friends to come into a strange country for months. I feel like we need to do more of this. It's a good feeling to know that I've helped them out. My kids and grandkids are getting something out of it. They asked a lot of questions, laughed and had a good time. It's just really rewarding."

He particularly enjoyed playing with Patricelli's dogs and hearing about happenings in her family's daily life, something she wouldn't experience living among classmates in residence halls.

"Everyone in her family is so nice," He said. "I am really glad to be together with them. I very much appreciated her hospitality, and I'm sure we will plan to do more together later."

Alie said the expectation for a Friendship Family is to spend time with an international student once or twice a month during the semester. Although the program has been around for more than five years, Alie said they are still in a "startup process" and more families are needed, and not just from SRU faculty and staff who make up the four current families, but local families from outside the SRU community as well.

"We want to globalize our local community as well, but we want to make sure we are putting students with safe families," Alie added.

People interested in participating in the SRU Friendship Family program can contact the Office for Global Engagement at: 724.738.2057.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 | justin.zackal@sru.edu