Home Away From Home
St. Kate's Friendship Family Program helps international students adjust
to life in America — and often fosters bonds that last a lifetime.
IT'S MONDAY evening at the O'Connor house, and that means it's Maureen Nkatha Kirimi's night to cook dinner. The whole place smells of spices like garam masala and cardamom, and the kitchen is crowded with helpers. Kirimi is serving several traditional Kenyan dishes, including a hearty beef stew; spicy mung beans; two types of bread, chapatti and andazi; and ugali, a starchy dough-like substance that looks like rice.
In the dining room, 10 people squeeze elbow-to-elbow around the table. Everyone joins hands and Kirimi, a nursing student at St. Catherine's, says grace in Swahili. Yun Kyung Cho follows with a prayer in Korean, and Kerin McTeigue O'Connor finishes up with a brief blessing in English. Then everyone starts passing dishes and digging in.
The O'Connors' daughter, Cassie, and son, Daniel, also have joined the family for dinner. Two neighbors complete the setting — demonstrating Kerin and her husband Patrick's longstanding tradition of including neighbors around the table.
The tempting food and the warm, easy conversation make the evening feel like a special occasion. But this is actually an ordinary dinner at the O'Connor house. It's exactly the sort of evening they had hoped for when Kerin O'Connor approached the College of St. Catherine more than a decade ago, wondering what her family could do to help international students feel more at home. "We've traveled so we know how it feels to be someplace new and not know anyone," she recalls.
But there were other reasons, too. Several years earlier the family had moved to Minnesota from Connecticut. O'Connor recalls that after leaving behind their family and friends, they were all feeling a bit lonely — like strangers in a strange land. "We wanted to create a sense of community and family while exposing all of us to the kind of diversity you just don't get in St. Paul," she adds.
So the family became one of St. Catherine's "Friendship Families" and the experience changed their lives. "People always say, 'Oh you're so good to have those students at your house.' But that's not true," says O'Connor. "We get so much. You think you know yourself and you think you're so openminded, and then you really get to know people from other countries and you realize there are so many things you don't know or understand. This has made the world real for our family."
More than a visit
Run by the College's office of Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS), the Friendship Family Program began in the late 1980s and matches international students with American families.
To ensure the best fit possible, students and families answer lengthy questionnaires that cover topics about children, pets, religious preferences, activities, hobbies and more. About half of the families who participate include St. Catherine's alumnae.
Families are there for students from the moment they step off the plane or train after their long journey, offering home-cooked meals and a place to stay for the first few nights before it's time to move into a residence hall. Over time, the families help students navigate American culture and do what they can to ease the pain of homesickness.
There are lots of shared meals, phone calls and visits. But as students make new friends and feel more comfortable on their own, it's not uncommon for these relationships to fade over months or years, says Norah Hoff, associate director for International Programs and Services at St. Kate's.
"Sometimes, it's as simple as chemistry," Hoff says. Some people click and others don't. Other times, as in the O'Connors' case, something much deeper happens. Students such as Kirimi and Cho become part of the family in ways none of them ever expected.
Kirimi, for example, arrived from Kenya in 2005. Because a cousin lives in Coon Rapids, Minn., she almost passed on signing up for a Friendship Family. But her mom suggested she go ahead because, "You never know who you will meet." The advice was good — as Coon Rapids is more than an hour by bus from the College. Soon, Kirimi was spending more time with the O'Connors. So much time, in fact, that when she told them she was looking for an apartment, Kerin asked her if she'd like to move in. Two years later, she's still there.
"They are all really warm people," says Kirimi. "Some people you stay with, you might live in their house, but you're not part of the family. You don't really have a bond. With them I can talk about anything. They're always there for me, and I like that I do regular things like cook meals on Mondays and help with the cleaning. Getting to know them has helped me get to know America. I don't think I could have done that the same way without them. They have been a real blessing in my life."
Cho graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications in 2003. Since then, she has attended graduate school in Connecticut, married her longtime sweetheart, Simon Kang, and returned to Minnesota where she teaches fourth grade.
"I would be at the dorm, and Kerin would call and say, 'You should come over for dinner.' Or, 'Come over this afternoon for tea.' So I was always there," she says.
The O'Connors have been there for Cho, too. Civil war in Liberia has prevented Cho from seeing her family for the past eight years. When she married Kang last year, it was Kerin and Patrick who stood in for her parents on her wedding day. "It's funny because I said exactly what I wanted from a family on my questionnaire," says Cho. "Everything I put on that paper came true."
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis freelance writer and frequent contributor to SCAN.
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