Friendship Family Program offers ways to connect, explore the world
Skidmore’s International Friendship Family Program offers international students a special opportunity to immerse themselves in U.S. culture and to experience Saratoga Springs by connecting with a local family. By forging a family relationship with an international student, the program also allows faculty and staff to learn more about the world at a time when international travel remains a challenge.
Over the past four years, John Winnek, supervisor of retail operations in Dining Services, and his family have offered their friendship and support to two international students: Abdul Shokur ’21, a Syrian whose family found refuge in Sweden, and Patrick Tavares ‘21 of Brazil.
“The two really became part of our family,” Winnek said.
During their time at Skidmore, Shokur and Tavares participated in family gatherings, accompanied the family on outings, celebrated important moments, and enjoyed a range of other experiences together.
The program helps Skidmore’s international students to ease their adjustment into American culture and enriches their stay by pairing them with an American family.
Families often make lifelong friendships and learn about other countries and cultures through enduring friendships with students.
In May 2019, the Winneks celebrated the end of the semester with an excursion to Lake George. From left are Patrick Tavares ’21; Michael, Barbara, and John Winnek; and Abdul Shokur ’21.
The program is now recruiting Skidmore faculty and staff to serve as host families for the 2021-22 academic year. Although it was officially suspended during the pandemic, many families – including John Winnek, his wife, Barbara, a teacher, and adult sons Michael and Chris – stayed connected with the students.
Chloe Jaleel, academic counselor and coordinator of international student and scholar services, who manages the program, noted that the Skidmore program is largely self-directed according to the availability and interests of both the host families and the students.
“Some Friendship Families see their students many times each semester, while others develop a once or twice per semester meet-up (or Zoom) routine. If health and safety concerns permit, Skidmore will organize planned group activities as well,” she said, adding that families do not provide housing to the students.
For the Winneks, activities ranged from watching an amateur boxing match to participating in holiday gatherings. Although the pandemic limited meetings, the Winneks were able to find new ways to connect, including occasional Zoom sessions, virtual game nights, and outdoor activities. They also celebrated milestones together, including both Shokur’s and Tavares’ graduation from Skidmore in May.
Winnek noted that his family’s relationship with each student was unique and also varied over time.
“Abdul wanted to know everything about the area,” Winnek said. “Sometimes, though, he just wanted to go to lunch and chat.”
The Winneks helped both to navigate life in the United States, sometimes giving them rides to appointments or the airport, storing boxes for the students between terms, hosting them for holiday stays, and helping Tavares move to New York City this summer. Winnek even taught both to drive.
“The relationship with John and his family is probably one of the best things that happened to me in College,” said Tavares, who had worked with Winnek in The Spa before starting his new career in investment banking.
Winnek said the experience with the two students also deepened his understanding of the world and has helped him to engage more easily with students.
“It’s been a great learning experience. Just listening to the students talking makes you smarter. It enriches you as a person,” Winnek said. “This experience has opened me up to new relationships and made me more eager to learn about the world.”
Inspired in part by the experience, John and Barbara Winnek also booked a trip to Spain. Both Tavares and Shokur helped with the planning. Although that trip was canceled because of the pandemic, the Winneks are now planning a future trip to London, where Shokur will be working.
Although he and Tavares have graduated, their connection with both endures and continues to deepen: The Winneks are looking forward to continuing their friendship with Shokur’s brother Tareq, a member Skidmore’s incoming Class of 2025.
More information about Skidmore’s International Friendship Family Program, including information on how to register as a host family for the 2021-22 year, is available on the program website or by contacting Chloe Jaleel. Participation is limited to Skidmore employees and other current host families.