BOWLING GREEN — Geethika Liyanage came to Bowling Green State University from Sri Lanka to study physics, but since his arrival last year he’s also learned about American customs and culture thanks to a program that matches up foreign students with area families.
The International Friendship Program has paired international BGSU students with families or individuals for more than 50 years. Students may share meals, trips, holidays, and other experiences with the families in a program that focuses on friendship.
Mr. Liyanage, a teaching assistant who is working on his master’s degree, has gone to the zoo, museums, and traveled around Ohio with the Napoleon family with whom he was matched. Sometimes, he’ll get a spur-of-the-moment call inviting him to dinner or their home. The experience has been so good that he encourages other international students to sign up for the program.
“I’ve been telling every student that you should definitely do this because it’s really amazing. Sometimes we are not accustomed to the situation, to the environment, so this is really helpful to us,” he said.
Bowling Green has 623 international graduate and undergraduate students enrolled this fall. At least 100 students typically sign up for the friendship program, said Betty Laukhuf, a longtime program participant who lives in Bowling Green.
Roughly 50 families or individuals join the program to be matched with students, and some are matched with multiple students. The program, which begins pairing students with families in mid-September, is looking to recruit more community members to participate.
Phyllis Oster of Bowling Green, who retired from the university in 1996, has been matched up with numerous international students, including students from Japan, France, China, and Mexico. She still is in touch with some of them.
Local families aren’t expected to have students live with them, and the university does not provide funding for the program.
A volunteer family may invite a student over to their home, on a day trip, or help out with tasks such as grocery shopping, Ms. Oster said.
“It’s usually at holiday times when Bowling Green kind of shuts down and international students might still be around,” she said.
Ms. Laukhuf, who has volunteered with the program for about 45 years, called the opportunity to get to know students from around the world “a joy.” For some international students, the program may afford them their only chance to get to know an American family and visit their home.
“I consider myself a global citizen,” she said. “We have this little United Nations right in our community. Why not experience it?”
The University of Toledo offers what it calls the Toledo International Hospitality Program. About 150 volunteer families participated last year.
The program always welcomes new families who are interested in befriending a student, said Peter Thomas, executive director of experiential learning and professional development at UT.
Residents or families interested in the UT program should contact the international student services office at 419-530-4229.
Those interested in the BGSU program may contact Ms. Laukhuf at 419-575-2610 or Ms. Oster at 419-352-4360.