Bridging cultures and generations
"If we began with the thought of helping students get their footing in a new environment,
we quickly learned that we were the gift recipients—100 times more than the students
That's Saratogian Sue Towne describing Skidmore's Friendship Families, which pairs international students with local residents for occasional meals or other activities. Now in its 10th year, the program has involved more than 200 hosts, from Skidmore staff and faculty to other area citizens. Each year about half of all international students take advantage of it, some using it only in their first year (as a supplement to the official orientation session for new international students) and some continuing in it for all four years. Staff member Darren Drabek, the program's founder and developer, says, "It's been easy to find people to serve as hosts; they really enjoy getting to know these students." Hosts have taken students apple-picking, hiking, or to Saratoga's Dance Flurry and Chowderfest events. "Some stay in touch after their students graduate," he adds, "and some have helped them land an internship or find an apartment in a new city."
Hosts Jim and Sue Towne pick up Tinashe Gwakuka '20 for a group
meal downtown. (Photo by Eric Jenks '08)
For Sue and Jim Towne, Themba Shongwe was their first, as a Swazi-born freshman; he's
now a senior business major. This year they're also hosting Sudanese sophomore Samuel
Tesfamariam and new transfer student Tinashe Gwakuka, originally from Zimbabwe. Sue
Towne says, "There is so much to learn from these young minds, these brave men and
women who've left their homes and families; they define dedication, heart and drive.
They worked hard to get here, and they're very serious about their studies. They're
also adventurous and fun-loving!" She says Shongwe is "very outgoing and active with
the International Student Union. It's been a great bonus for us to get to know many
of his friends as well as him."
Calling the Townes are "a delight" and "a great support," Tesfamariam says, "Discussing politics and culture with them is always interesting. I get an insight into America that I wouldn't get from campus life, and it's truly refreshing to get away from school from time to time."
"The house was a cacophony of joy, laughter, serious discussion, raucous debate, and personal stories."
As for Towne, "After a meal or outing with these amazing kids, Jim and I just look
at each other and say 'That was so cool!'" Along with café meetings or other diversions,
she says, "we try to do some parental things, such as making sure they have winter
clothing. It's about making opportunities for them to be on the same footing as the
domestic students as much as possible."
As a former professional baker, host Marian Bigelow enjoys cooking with and for her students. When Ebrahim Shah was a freshman, she recalls, "I made him a birthday cake. He was so pleased that he took a photo of it to send to his mom! Later, on a visit to the states, she told me that when she saw that cake photo, she knew he would be OK here." Bigelow and Shah also prepared a Pakistani dish together, from his mother's recipe that he'd stored on his phone in Urdu. "That was wild and fun," she says.
Bigelow adds, "I like to ask questions. I always tell them, 'You don't have to answer,' but I enjoy learning about them and their lives. I had a long talk with Ebrahim about Islam; he knew a lot about the history of his religion."
Ibrahim Shah '18 poses with local kids during his summer project
to deliver vaccines in his home country of Pakistan.
Now a senior physics major finishing a dual-degree engineering program, Shah was impressed
that "Hal and Marian are active community workers. One Sunday I accompanied them to
the Unitarian church near Skidmore and was mesmerized by the warm and welcoming embrace
of churchgoers." He says, "Americans are not afraid to learn and embrace foreign cultures.
I found a home away from home."
Over the years, Bigelow says, "I've seen a huge difference in Ebrahim-he's more confident and outgoing now. He's even taken bus trips on his own, to places he wanted to see."
Also paired with the Bigelows is sophomore Dingping Wang, who says having dinner with the Bigelows, including their son and his wife, was among her favorite events so far. "My host mom made ham, and I brought traditional Chinese moon cake and jasmine tea." She says through Bigelow's encouragement, "I became more independent and less homesick."
Many host families bring their students home for big holidays when domestic students leave campus. Sue Towne says that adding her students, and several of their friends, to her own friends and family for Thanksgiving "was an experience to behold. The house was a cacophony of joy, laughter, serious discussion, raucous debate, and personal stories. Afterward our family said they hoped they could join in again next year!"
She reflects, "I've learned so much in every interaction with these remarkable students. I hope all the other Skidmore students are learning from them too. I wish our kids had had such a large and interesting group of international students when they were in college."
Gwakuka, Tesfamariam, the Townes, Sadiq Ahmed '20, and Shongwe meet up outside Case Center. (Photo by Eric Jenks '08)