When the world comes to CU, these Friends lend a hand

Faculty, staff in demand as Boulder Friends of International Students grows

Aya Attar, left, and Kirstin Bebell during a visit to Grand Falls on the Little Colorado River northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Bebell hosts international students such as Attar as part of the Boulder Friends of International Students program.

bfisAs the number of international students increases at the University of Colorado Boulder, so has demand for members of the community – including faculty and staff – to help newcomers explore their new surroundings.

With classes, homework, internships and other activities claiming so much time, students need a chance to experience life outside the “campus bubble,” explains Becky Sibley, international student and scholar adviser. To help, Boulder Friends of International Students (BFIS) offers a host program that enables students to learn more about and experience local culture, lifestyle and traditions.

Since it was established in 1955, BFIS, a subgroup of the campus’s Office of International Education, has been assisting visiting students. Hailing primarily from China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, many international students come to Boulder to get a sense of American life. But they not only want to experience campus, they also want to experience the community as well.

Last fall, CU-Boulder welcomed more than 550 new international students — graduate and undergraduate. As of last fall, the total international student population reached a new high of 1,674.

Unlike similar programs in high schools, students do not live with their hosts. While they are asked to meet with students at least once or twice a month, hosts can meet more often – for group outings, dinners, sporting events, church events and more. About 60 to 80 hosts or host families take part in the program, not including those who stay in touch with students after they’ve graduated.

Anyone can host: singles or couples, with or without children, any occupation and religion. Staff and faculty from the campus are greatly encouraged to join as hosts because of their campus ties. Faculty and staff account for nearly a quarter of the program’s hosts.

And it’s not only staff and faculty from the Boulder campus — those from other campuses also are welcome to sign up. Having a host from another CU campus is a great chance for students to get out of the Boulder area using the RTD system.

Kirstin Bebell, Study Abroad Program Manager, says taking part in the BFIS program has broadened her understanding of students.

“Even though I work in international education, BFIS has given me the opportunity to interact with people from other countries in greater depth than I would otherwise have,” Bebell says. “I have met people from Slovakia, Chile, Taiwan, Lebanon and India through BFIS. Each student is an opportunity for a new cultural experience, but even more, an opportunity to get to know a unique individual with similar interests to mine who just happens to have grown up in a different country.

“There are always challenges to working with someone from a different background, but that is true whether the two people are both American or are from completely different countries,” said Bebell, who was a host to Aya Attar, who is from Lebanon. “The difference in native languages can be a challenge. I remember teaching Aya what Park-n-Ride meant. We had a good laugh over that one. Say the words fast and you can understand why ‘Park-n-Ride’ is not an intuitive word concept in English.”

Hosts and students are matched after completing surveys and questionnaires on interests, hobbies, favorite foods, pets, etc. Sometimes matches last for just a year, while others continue through the student’s career at CU-Boulder and result in lifelong relationships. Some hosts have enjoyed the experience so much that they’ve continued hosting for 30 years.

For potential hosts who cannot commit to a full year, but still want to be involved, BFIS recently created a Dinner Network. This gives volunteers the option to host for just an evening. It’s also a good way to test the waters of hosting, opening the doors to a potential long-term commitment.

BFIS does a good job of matching hosts and students with similar interests in activities, food and intellectual pursuits, “so you’re not really getting to know another culture as much as you are getting to know another person who happens to be new to Boulder,” Bebell says. “There’s always the flavor of another culture in the interactions, but that’s just the spice – the substance is the person regardless of the country they call home.”

It’s a fun experience and a “natural thing to develop for a community,” Sibley says.

For more information or to apply as a host, visit the BFIS website, or contact Susan Ernst, matching coordinator, at bfis@colorado.edu.