College students find homes away from home
Chishala Kapupu '12 and local host father Steve Collins '74 spend a great deal of time together, including regular lunches in the dining halls and hiking.
When international students arrive on the Hill, most know it could be a while before they return home to their families. In order to gain a sense of familial comfort in an unfamiliar place, many of these students enroll in Colby’s Host Family Program, which has been under the direction of Associate Dean of Students Susan McDougal for the past 15 years.
Before first-year international students arrive in the fall, McDougal sends them an informational letter about the program, as well as an application form. Each year, an international student worker, who McDougal employs during the summer, writes the letter so that incoming students are “hearing information about the program from a student who has a host family,” McDougal said.
The brief application asks questions about the student’s native country, hobbies, allergies and housing preferences. McDougal uses students’ responses to match them with their host families, who fill out a nearly identical form.
This program has garnered the interest of families from as close as Waterville and as far as Portland, many of them affiliated with the College in some way. In the fall, McDougal begins sending e-mails to potential host families, mainly faculty and staff, before posting announcements on the Digest.
The rest of the volunteers, according to McDougal, become involved through word-of-mouth. “I get a lot of e-mails from those current families that say, ‘My neighbor wants to be a host, can you send them information?’” As a result, the program has spread well beyond the small College community. “I really think the reason that this program works is because it’s volunteer,” McDougal said.
During this academic year, 77 families have offered homes away from home to 120 students, which means many families take on more than one student. “I have four myself,” McDougal said, “and the current host families are just amazing. When I send out reminders saying I have eight kids still [not placed] for the fall…they respond well.”
Students are just as enthusiastic about the program. On average, only a couple of students in each class year opt out of having a host family, McDougal said. “The majority want a family,” she said. “Of the one or two who say, ‘I’m OK….I don’t need one,’ they usually come in within a year and say they want one.”
However, the program is not limited to international students—language assistants and domestic students can become involved as well. Language assistants, who only spend a year on the Hill, are ideal students for families who want to meet and host a greater variety of people.
McDougal also noted the program’s appeal to American students who are perhaps far from home or are struggling to adjust to college life. “I offer [host families] to any student that maybe feels like they’re a bit lonesome....I’m really open to everybody, and we get the word out through CAs [Community Advisors] on campus and COOT leaders,” McDougal said.
After an initial kick-off dinner in the fall, during which most first-years meet their host families for the first time, McDougal leaves it up to the students and their families to decide how they will spend their time together.
For Justin Lutian ’15, his host family was an integral part of his transition from Singapore, where he has lived for the past four years, to Maine. “They made me feel that I had someone I could turn to when I have an immediate need,” he said. “I know that they will always be there to support me.”
Botswana native Teko Mmolawa ’12, whose host family in Belgrade recently relocated to Portland, said that he saw them a few times a month when they lived nearby. “You’d invite them over for Halloween to do pumpkin carving and to the International Food Festival or International Extravaganza—those types of events,” he said. On the weekends, they often invited him over for meals. “It’s a place to go away from school when work is really intense and let loose a little bit….It’s nice to have a home-cooked meal around a dinner table [and] just be with a family. It might not be your own family, but there’s still that atmosphere.”
During holidays and breaks, many international students rely heavily on their host families. This past fall, Lutian’s family asked him to Thanksgiving dinner. “It was my first Thanksgiving, and it was really nice of them to invite me over and introduce me to an American tradition,” he said.
Throughout the year, McDougal hosts between three and five events “just to bring everyone together.” The family potluck dinner, which occurs in February, is one of the more popular gatherings. “Each family brings something to share, and the homemade food is absolutely amazing. A lot of families will get together with their student to make food from their [student’s] culture,” McDougal said.
Beyond introducing international students to Maine, families are helpful with day-to-day tasks. “They’ll pick you up at the airport or keep your luggage,” Mmolawa said. “Some even help you out with [driver’s] licenses and allow you to practice driving.”
Chishala Kapupu ’12 has had an especially unique experience in terms of host families: since arriving at the College from Swaziland, Kapupu has been placed with three different families. After her first host mother moved to California, College Editor Steve Collins ’74 adopted her into his family. In addition to meeting Collins for regular lunches in the dining halls, Kapupu has been meeting with her host mother, Collins’ wife, every Friday to learn how to swim.
Collins and his wife encourage Kapupu to bring her friends to their home as well. “They actually adopted a friend of mine as a host daughter, too, because I always bring her over,” Kapupu said.
Kapupu’s third host family is not associated with the College. As a Jehovah’s Witness, she met a local family at church during the fall semester of her first year, and she has been traveling along the East coast and spending breaks with them ever since.
Bonds between host families and their students often continue throughout and beyond senior year. Upon graduation, many host families open their homes to their host students’ family members who have flown in for the commencement ceremony. “I’ve also had families go to where their host students are from in order to meet their families,” McDougal said.
For many students, Mmolawa said, “Home is not 20 minutes away from school—it’s 20 hours away….There is no home for international kids, so host families try to create that feeling of having a place to go.”