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Host family program gives international students a ‘home away from home’ at Christmas

Monmouth College’s 25-year-old program allows for mutual exchange of holiday traditions

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

Bus Kellogg, far left, and his wife, Jane, far right, both of Monmouth, Ill., celebrate the Christmas season with Monmouth College international students Nhung Vu ’18 of Hanoi, Vietnam, second from left, and Farida Mohammed ’18 of Ghana. (Photo by Duane Bonifer)

LOUISVILLE – As college campuses everywhere become ghost towns over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, with dormitories mostly shuttered and food services closed, many international students find themselves in a unique—and often lonely—position, longing for home. And the promise of a home-cooked meal.

Providentially, the Presbyterian-related Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, was among several schools and organizations who early on anticipated and responded to the students’ needs at Christmas.

When the college—which has a current enrollment of 1,200 students from 35 countries—started to recruit large numbers of students from countries around the world in the 1990s it simultaneously launched the college’s host family program for international students.

“The college recognized that international students, far away from their homes, needed support from within the larger Monmouth community,” says Mohsin Masood, associate dean of Students and director of Residence Life. “The idea behind the host family program was to find a ‘home away from home’ for our international student population.”

Masood says that the program—now over 25 years old—also serves many other important purposes, such as educating international students about American culture as well as educating the local population on the cultural nuances of the participating student’s particular culture.

Jane and Bus Kellogg, both ruling elders at Faith United Presbyterian Church located just two blocks from the college have years of firsthand experience with the program’s immediate and larger goals. The Kelloggs, who serve as year-round hosts to several of the college’s international students are also active in the congregation’s additional programs for international students.

“It’s fun to have the kids over at Christmas, because they want to know the traditions of the U.S. and have the food of the season,” says Jane Kellogg. “Several of the kids, probably at least five or six, have also cooked for us from their traditions. At Christmas, we’ll have our house all decorated and we’ll serve the traditional cookies. I’m sure at some point we’ll read the story of the birth of Jesus, because we always include that in our own traditions.”

Jane Kellogg says that the international students with whom she and her husband have become involved this year are a diverse and interesting group, including 15 from Ghana, six of whom regularly attend church, and two students from Syria.

“We have an open door policy,” says Kellogg. “We probably know about 20 international kids well. They all have our phone number, so any of them that need anything know they can call us. A large part of it is that these girls from Ghana are so inspiring to us. We talk frequently about religion and their religious practices in Ghana. The Syrian students are Muslim. We do share our faith, but since quite a few of the ones that we know have a faith—whether it’s Presbyterian or not—it’s been really inspiring to us to hear it.”

Ralph and Martha Whiteman, also both ruling elders at Faith United, have been host parents to international students since the start of the program.

“We’ve hosted international students from at least ten different countries and of different religions,” Ralph Whiteman says. “We’ve had students from India, Japan, China, Egypt, Greece, Ethiopia, Ireland, and France, many of whom have gone to our church. The international students come over and meet with our kids at our ‘Wednesday Night Live’ [youth program and meal]. They are a real resource for the community in a lot of respects.”

The Rev. Dr. Teri Ott, Monmouth College’s chaplain, sees the program as fully congruent with the college’s larger mission.

“The ‘pioneering Presbyterians’ who founded Monmouth College did so in order to ‘promote social righteousness’ or serve the needs of our society,” says Ott. “Today’s society, both locally and globally, is increasingly diverse. By intentionally recruiting international students, we bring cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity to our community that would not be here otherwise. Because of this diversity, our conversations and our education are much more rich and applicable to today’s pluralistic world. It is a joy for us to share these social, cultural and educational opportunities of our campus with the broader community through our host family program.”

The program’s goals are achieved not only by having students hosted by area families at holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, but also by inviting the host families to various events on the campus such as the annual Cultural Festival, the “Great Decisions” series on important, current, global issues, and host family meet-and-greet events.

Of all of the program’s many mutual benefits, what Jane Kellogg appreciates most is that the international students “make us think when they ask us questions, whether they’re faith questions, or just questions about how we do things in the U.S.”

One of the Ghanaian students in particular, she says, asks a lot of questions.

“The kids help you think through why you do certain things, like why and how you celebrate Advent,” says Kellogg. “When some of our Ghana friends came to church last summer, we all went out to lunch afterwards. Later this one fellow said to me, ‘Now I have a question for you.’ I thought he was just going to ask some random question, but he came out with, ‘If you saw Jesus in your front yard, what would you do?’ So I said, ‘Okay!’ They make you stop and think about how you celebrate your own faith and what’s really important.”

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