Taking out his personal digital assistant Oct. 27 at a Cornell International Friendship Program (CIFP) social at Hasbrouck Community Center, local retiree Stu Berg types into a translator app and rushes to show Joanna Fang, a dual-degree master’s student from China. Fang’s face lights up as she sees the characters. “I haven’t been able to explain ‘chiropractor’!” says Berg.
Berg and his wife, Jean, are matched with Fang (MILR ’14, MBA ’14) through the CIFP, which pairs international students and scholars with local individuals or families who commit to providing social support.
This year, 51 “internationals” have been paired with locals, many of whom are alumni and staff, while 19 are still unmatched. Adriana Rovers, associate director for programming services for Cornell’s International Students and Scholars Office, hopes more locals will sign up.
“This international friendship program has been around for more than 50 years,” said Rovers. Recently, though, “the program has been reinvigorated in the last three years with the assistance of very dedicated local volunteers who are collaborating with our office and the Office of Alumni Affairs,” who are not only friendship partners but also assisting with the database, the matching process and organizing social events.
One of those community members is Berg, who says of Fang: “She’s like a daughter to us.” In the past few years, he and his family have helped Fang acclimate to U.S. culture by inviting her to Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners as well as local charity events, fairs and concerts.
“I know their family – their daughter, their son, their grandson … so it’s really very nice,” Fang said.
While locals are expected to facilitate the friendship, “it goes both ways,” said Berg. When Fang’s mother visited from China, she “made an unbelievable Chinese dinner for us – never had anything like it,” Berg recalled.
Chinese student Lei Huang, a doctoral student in the field of computational biology, said that he joined the friendship program to gain a “more in-depth understanding of the society” as he “missed some human perspectives of this town.” Huang was matched with Mark Hartsuyker.
“[Before], I spent too much time in school. I didn’t get any hands-on experience,” said Huang. “Mark just showed tremendous hospitality right away and invited me over for dinner. That was my first time actually going to a local resident’s place for dinner.”
Nu Tang, a doctoral student from Vietnam, said that she learns a lot about American culture from her local matches, Betty and Bill House: “America was very different in Betty’s time and my time now. I’ve learned a lot of things about the time Betty was brought up,” said Tang. “In your studies, the [principal investigator] will help train you how to be good in science. But in society, Bill and Betty have helped me. I really miss my family, and Bill and Betty are just like my second family because they really support me.”
Berg, who has participated in the program for some 30 years, said that time commitments vary and are entirely up to the participants. He emphasized that it’s simple to connect with student partners: “What does your family do at home? Do they have Thanksgiving dinner? Invite a student over. Do they go to a museum or go on a hike or go to the supermarket or go to the farmers’ market? Just work it into your life.”
Natalie O’Toole ’16 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.