St. Olaf College’s Friendship Family program provides international students with a little taste of home life, even though some of their homes are an ocean or two away.
A student who elects to take part in the long-running program is paired with a Northfield resident or family to spend time with during the school year.
This year, more than 70 students are paired with residents.
What the students from abroad and their matches decide to do isn’t important, said Lori Middeldorp, program coordinator. All that matters is that a friendship forms.
“There are no firm rules when it comes to what they do,” she said. “You and your family can include the student in ways that fits your schedule. If you go out to a concert, you bring them along. If you have a child who plays football, you bring the student along to watch a game.”
Or, she said, students and their matches simply can meet for a cup of coffee or tea.
Most residents who are paired with St. Olaf international students work at the college. Others agree to take part after learning about the program from fliers distributed in the community.
Middeldorp said she tries to match students and families with similar interest. And, in many cases, she's successful
Middeldorp knows a thing or two about how the program works. In addition to coordinating the program, she also has been matched with a handful of international students through the years.
During an interview last week, Middeldorp shared several stories of her interactions with international students. She talked about taking one student vintage clothes shopping. She and her husband took another student and her friends grocery shopping, then back to her house so the students to cook a feast of their favorite native foods.
“The program is great for the students, and it’s great for us,” Middeldorp said. “The world becomes much smaller with programs like this.”
International student Sudip Bhandari is quoted on the St. Olaf website talking about his experiences with the program.
“The friendship family program here at St. Olaf has been a great resource for me in multiple ways. I have some wonderful memories of the times I’ve spent with my friendship family (who are Oles, too) carving pumpkins in Halloween or having a great big meal in Thanksgiving. My first year in college as an international student, I was nervous about how things will work out for me. Thankfully, my friendship family helped me immensely in adjusting in America. Be it as simple yet important as taking me to Mall of America to buy a winter coat, or inviting me to go to Minnesota Zoo just for fun, my friendship family has helped me in every way possible to make my college life memorable, comfortable and overall much more exciting.”
Middeldorp said it’s common for St. Olaf alumni to email her with notes of appreciation.
“This program is being used in recruiting for international students because it has been so successful,” she said. “It’s liked by both the students and their parents.”
Middeldorp said she isn’t sure when the program got its start—it was operating when she first worked for St. Olaf in 1996—but she has seen it grow alongside the increase in the college’s international student population.
This year, 72 students representing 40 countries are taking part in Friendship Family.
The program’s goal is to match one student with one family. Some families do take on two or three students, though.
Middeldorp said there could be a few students still looking to match a match this school year. Families can register either to take a student the year or, what’s more likely, take part next year.
She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.