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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Friendship Family Program Pairs International Students, Area Residents

Program provides opportunities to learn about other cultures.

2018-10-04
Mark Fischenich, Mankato Free Press, 9-29-2018

MANKATO — Kaab Shamoon is in his third year at Minnesota State University, Mankato, so he understands American college life pretty well, he's getting a handle on Minnesota, but that November holiday in the United States was an absolute mystery until he spent it with an American family.

"Thanksgiving, I have no idea what it is to this day," said Shamoon, a construction management major from Pakistan. "We eat until we feel bad about it. And then we eat some more."

Not that there's anything wrong with that: "I think anybody from any culture, that's something we all can get behind."

Shamoon is the essence of extroverted, so he'd barely arrived in Mankato before he met a friend who invited him to meet her family in the Twin Cities. They kept inviting him back and he kept going.

"They became like my Friendship Family even before I was aware of the term," he said.

The experience has been so good, that Shamoon has served as an ambassador for the formal Friendship Family Program at Minnesota State Mankato. The program is a blessing — personally and educationally — for international students who aren't so outgoing as he is, Shamoon said.

So he encourages fellow students and Mankato-area families to give it a try. For the current school year, there are more students signed up for the program than there are participating families.

"We still have students who are waiting for a family," said Alissa Morson, who coordinates the program at the Kearney Center for International Student Services at Minnesota State Mankato.

Morson, like Shamoon, said the program tends to be mutually beneficial. International students half-a-world from home benefit from having a substitute family from southern Minnesota, a source of practical advice on the local area and a taste of life outside a university campus. The families get to learn about another country and another culture through the words of a young expert who comes from a far-flung place, and they can do it without making the big commitment that comes with a foreign exchange student.

The Friendship Family Program doesn't involve housing a student. It discourages overnight or weekend stays. Instead, it involves committing for a semester to meet-ups at least once a month, which can be a restaurant meal, a home-cooked dinner, an outing at a local park, a day-trip to the Twin Cities — anything that is mutually agreeable.

Often, that semester-long commitment transforms into a friendship lasting until the student graduates and sometimes beyond that.

Gwen Donev of Mankato and her family have participated in the program multiple times but have typically had students who are at Minnesota State Mankato just for a semester of studying abroad. There's only about 100 of those, Morson said, of the nearly 1,300 international students overall. The vast majority come as freshmen seeking a four-year degree or transfer in from another college and stay until graduation.

Even a relationship that lasts for four and a half months can be meaningful, said Donev, whose family has developed friendships with students from Japan, the Netherlands and Germany. The Donev family, which include six-year-old Eva and 10-year-old Sophia, has invited their international student a full range of trips. They've included simple outings like Minneopa State Park and or a visit to the girls' gymnastics practices. There have also been more elaborate events such as a performance of "West Side Story" at St. Paul's Ordway Theater and a visit to Donev's parents' farm near Cosmos.

"We've always had super-positive experiences and feel they've really appreciated seeing that side of America," Donev said.

Her daughters have learned about other cultures in a way that's anything but abstract, and they've seen that mastering a second language is a very attainable goal after hearing international students speaking fluent English.

It's a somewhat unique opportunity for Mankato, where Minnesota State Mankato has the 16th most international students of any university in America — not counting the largest universities that offer doctoral degrees. But that opportunity to connect with people from nearly 90 different nations is unlikely outside the formal introduction provided by the Friendship Family Program.

"You don't walk up to somebody in a grocery store and say 'I'd like to spend some time with you,'" Donev said.

And international students aren't likely to walk up to a grandmotherly looking Mankatoan and say, 'I'm lonely, and I miss my family and I could really use a good meal.'"

But that happened without asking to a friend of Shamoon's who was in the program. The young man was sick when his Friendship Family mom called to check on him, and she went into full mom-mode after hearing that he was ailing.

"She was making him chicken soup and the whole thing," Shamoon said. "So it really counts for a lot. ... Someone who's there for you and fussing over you and making sure you're taking care of yourself, that goes a long way."

And it gives the international students a better connection to the community than they would get just hanging out with students on a college campus.

"Frankly, college students are idiots, and I say that speaking as one," Shamoon said.

They can't tell you where the best place to buy groceries is or recommend a good mechanic when your car breaks down or point out the best low-cost outings in the area. A Friendship Family can.

The entire version of this story can be read in a print copy of the Mankato Free Press. Call the Mankato Free Press at 625-4451 or (800) 657-4662 to find out how to purchase a print copy. The Free Press also prints select stories online at www.mankatofreepress.com.

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