For 63 years, the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students – known as FIUTS (pronounced FĪ-yutes) – has connected international students coming to the University of Washington with our community. It is heroic work finding short-term homestays for hundreds of incoming students, organizing orientation events for over a thousand, and integrating leadership training into programs that lead to life long friendships. As we start to kick back and enjoy our summers, FIUTS ramps up to welcome a new cohort of international students. This post is dedicated to FIUTS and hosts everywhere who open their homes to students from other countries.
Our family celebrated Thanksgiving dinner in 1979 with six Iranian students participating in a program organized by universities in Boston to expose international students to country life, in this case Cape Cod. The hostage crisis in Tehran began just weeks before, and these students came to the Cape knowing that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. State Department would revoke their student visas. No other family would take in the Iranian students— my parents sought them out. I forget what all we discussed over the course of the weekend, though I do recall all of us sharing a laugh at my father’s suggestion that they repay our hospitality with a barge of oil transported down Bass River to our home.
A decade after that dinner, I was hosted by a generous family outside Stuttgart, Germany. Another decade later, my own family began hosting international students coming to Seattle for a quarter or year abroad. We continue to borrow and lend into the hospitality bank that all of us who travel participate in. We continue to learn from and share ideas with young adults and mid-career professionals from countries around the world.
Every student who spends a week in our home inevitably asks me why we host. We have international friends and colleagues from our various international experiences. Why put so much effort into cultivating new international friendships year after year?
1. It makes the world smaller.
The only way to build a global community of people working together for peace and sustainable prosperity is through human connection, friendship, and cross-cultural understanding. Indeed, FIUTS was founded on the principle that friends don’t wage war against each other. On the whole, we need to create more opportunities for people of all ages to collaborate on common projects across the borders of culture, race, or class. International education is based on giving each young person a personal connection with the world.
As a result of globalization and the recruitment efforts of our local universities needing out-of-state tuition, more and more international students are studying in the U.S. In the 2009-2010 academic year, 690,923 students studied in the U.S. (amounting to a net economic impact of nearly $19 billion), and even more students than ever before are expected to arrive for a Fall 2011 start. That means that Washington state students from Anacortes to Zillah will be sitting side by side students from Argentina to Zimbabwe, and a whole lot of students from Chehalis and Cheney will be sharing classes with students from China. Not to diminish the importance of getting on that airplane, but every single domestic student has the opportunity for a international study abroad micro-experience right on their own campus.
Hosting makes the world smaller for those of us hosting students as well. Through Facebook and Skype, we can track events in Egypt through wall posts and call up a student’s mom on Skype for a quick question about a recipe. I often hit the “chat” button on the bottom of my Facebook screen to see who all is on-line, and it amazes me that there are times that I could have concurrent chats with friends in Uganda, Serbia, and Brazil.
2. It makes the world bigger.
Most of us working in the field of social change and poverty alleviation have in-depth experience somewhere in the world and personal connections that come from that. These are the relationships that sustain our sense of connection with cultures we know well. Despite years of living abroad and a career of international engagement, however, I still wonder at the new insights I gain from my friendship with students who spend time in our home. We intentionally ask FIUTS to match us with students from different countries each year, playing a sort of FIUTS roulette in seeing what new culture we will learn about that year. I have gained a deeper and more nuanced understanding of issues from philanthropy to human rights in conversations with students from Europe, Asia, and Africa. I have learned from them just as they gain new understanding from me about my work. I have sat at my own dinner table in silence as scholars from Serbia and Croatia rehashed events from the war that tore apart their countries.
Cross-cultural skills dullen over time if not challenged and exercised with new people and cultures. We work so deep in the trenches of cross-cultural understanding that we sometimes stop checking ourselves to make sure that we are listening and understanding colleagues operating in dynamic conditions. Hosting new cultures each year makes the world bigger beyond issues directly related to social change and poverty alleviation.
3. It makes the world better for the next generation.
International communities of students become global communities of connected citizens who can draw on their cross-cultural friendships in times of peace and challenge. As our world grapples with the challenges of immigration, growing inequality, and globalization of cultural influences, investing in the cross-cultural leadership skills of today’s university students lays the groundwork for future engagement based on understanding and respect. International students come to the U.S. to study and experience a new culture, but often that experience is limited to the student culture they find on campus or among their peers. FIUTS takes advantage of this opportunity to enlist students in building a global community based on mutual understanding by linking these students with people living in neighborhoods across the city and being intentional about building cross-cultural leadership skills among international and domestic students.
There is an on-going game within the FIUTS community—what does the “F” in FIUTS stand for? While the organization’s work lays the foundation for world peace, it is not a foundation in today’s sense of the word. Food? No one could argue with the savory array of global foods at every potluck and the succulence of the hand-formed ravioli and dumplings shaped by our students from Italy and China. Fun? Goes without saying. Family? We make regular reference to our Thai son and Serbian sister.
But above all, I believe the “F” in FIUTS stands for friendship, the kind of friendship that allows us to leave the community that brought us together and yet feel a kinship that crosses time and space. The kind of friendship that allows each of us to live within our own cultural comfort zone and yet appreciate the commonalities and differences of people with whom we share a foundation of trust. The kind of friendship that spans generations so that our children imagine themselves exploring a different part of the world and joining this global community. I am already excited to welcome our new friends this fall.
Visit www.fiuts.org for more information about hosting in the Seattle area.
Outside of Seattle, call your local university and ask about their international student support services.