University asks area to open homes, hearts

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, March 22, 2012

For some students, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime to attend college in the United States. But traveling to study in a country where the language and culture is foreign is a daunting idea.

However, there is a program in place at Troy University to ease the adjustment to life in a different country for international students. The Homestay program pairs students with local families in order to help them become members of the community.

“We try to match hosts and applicants that would get along well together,” said Stephen Swan, International Student Advisor.

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This semester, there are about 850 international students at Troy. Swan said that, on average, 20-30 percent of international students at Troy express an interest in living with local families, but the willingness from area residents to act as hosts hasn’t been as great.

Swan said that the most successful semester only placed 10 students in local homes.

“It’s a shame,” Swan said. “It gives students an outlet to get out and be exposed to our culture and community.”

And the benefits aren’t one-way. Swan said that past host families have had an opportunity through the students who lived with them to experience new foods and ways of life.

“One family found out their student was an Olympic swimmer from China,” Swan said. “You never know the backgrounds and stories of people you may meet. It’s amazing.”

Greg Skaggs, an associate art and design professor at Troy, said he and his family have hosted two students from India, two from Saudi Arabia and one from Sweden.

“We thought it would be a nice cultural exchange for us,” Skaggs said, adding that one of his daughters ended up traveling to Sweden to spend the summer with the international student who lived with them.

Skaggs said he’s even picked up a little Arabic.

One thing he didn’t expect, though, was the degree of teaching that came with the agreement to host students.

“We had some students from wealthy families who had never washed their own clothes before,” Skaggs laughed. “We had to teach them how to use the washing machine and how to use the stove.”

Skaggs said that he, his wife and his two children plan to open their homes to international students “for a very long time.” He feels it is a great way to show people from other countries that “Americans are truly caring and giving and Christianity is a way of life.”

To participate in the program, potential host families fill out an application that leads to a very flexible housing agreement. They answer questions regarding their knowledge of foreign languages, church affiliation and special interests and hobbies.

Homestay contracts include a start and end date entered by the host family and rules such as whether or not alcohol, pets and friends are allowed in the home. Hosts are able to set curfews and expectations for cleanliness.

Families are also compensated by rent from the student averaging $300-$400 per month, depending on accommodations. That amount includes a certain number of family meals provided by the hosts.

“The host can decide the terms of the contract,” Swan said.

Short-term stays are also allowed if a family would like to host an international student at Christmas or during an academic break.

“It’s a great program,” Swan said, “but its success depends on the community and their desire to help and house students.”

For more information, contact Stephen Swan at 670-5964.