Program matches international students with local families

Author: Gene Stowe, for NDWorks

Anne Hayes, McKenna Pencak, ISSA Hayes, left, and Pencak

The International Student Services and Activities Family Friendship Program has made a world of difference for Anne Hayes since her parents started hosting when she was 4 years old.

“It really shaped my life,” says Hayes, assistant director in the Office of International Studies. “I can’t count the number of students we’ve had. We’ve had them from all over the world.

“They were at birthday parties and celebrated holidays with us. It was a great opportunity for me growing up to learn about different cultures.”

Anne’s mother, Sandra Chrystal Taradash, who helped coordinate the program in the 1980s, continued to host until 1994.

Ten years later, Anne joined the program to host undergraduate Jose Duarte Jr., whose father was one of her family’s students when he was getting his MBA in the 1980s.

This year, Anne’s family is continuing their relationship with the Duartes, hosting Jose’s younger brother Ricardo, a sophomore. The program ensures that Anne’s 15-month-old daughter, Shannon, will grow up with the multicultural exposure.

The program, which began in 1957, matches undergraduate and graduate international students with local families for friendship and get- togethers, both formal and informal. Last year, 35 families hosted 55 students. “It’s a chance for them to experience American culture, learn more about what an American home is like,” says McKenna Pencak, ISSA’s assistant director for communications and outreach.

“It’s also really a great way for host families to learn about different cultures. It’s really a learning experience for both parties.”

Some 870 international students from nearly 90 countries are at Notre Dame, about two-thirds of them graduate students although the friendship program is about half graduate students, half undergraduates.

Families and students are paired the first week in September, Pencak says. “In mid-September, we’ll host a kickoff event.”

ISSA hosts about five programs during the year, such as a fall hayride and Thanksgiving potluck, and encourages families and students to connect at least once per month
for activities such as Notre Dame sporting events, dinner out or movie nights at home.

Jerry and Lisa Brooks, who are starting their 40th year as hosts, have met more than 50 students from two-dozen countries, including the undergraduate daughter of a graduate student from the early years.

Among other things, they’ve shared dinners with the students and taken them boating—and they’ve had dinner in Costa Rica with a student’s family and been invited to a wedding in Pakistan.

“It gave us the chance to sit back and enjoy other cultures,” Lisa says. “We had our own little international family.”

Karen Kirner, Campus Ministry choral program director and organist, joined the program six years ago. Last year she and her husband, Scott, director of enterprise systems, hosted three students.

“I lived a year overseas and always enjoyed the hospitality from other people,” she says, adding that her three children benefit from the engagement.

“It’s an invaluable way to let them know about different people and cultures and traditions. A lot of my kids’ best friends are African- American or Asian. It opens their eyes.”

One graduate student they met last year, Lawrence Itela from Kenya, signed up for the choirs, and he and Karen celebrated their common birthday last month. Itela says the program far exceeds his expectations.

“When it started up, I was a little apprehensive,” he says. “My expectation was it would just help me settle down, get a bit of insight into how the American family works.

“As time has gone on, it has grown into much more than that. I feel like I’m part of a family now. The Kirners are extremely kind. They are very interested to learn a lot about my country. I’ve been able to learn a lot from them as well.”

For more information about the Family Friendship Program, email or call 574- 631-3825. Register as a host family by Thursday, Sept. 1.