By Kenna Bruner

International students leaving their home country to attend graduate school in the United States can sometimes feel isolated and overwhelmed, even though they’re excited about being here. Boulder Friends of International Students strives to help students feel more at home by pairing them with local families who can provide a sense of belonging in the CU Boulder and local communities.

 “Some kids get on their feet and get rolling right along with school,” said Sally Yerger, a board member with BFIS. “If they do, they don’t need much comfort or companionship, but other kids want it. It can be an isolating and overwhelming experience, so our goal is to help them feel connected at CU.”

The experience also enhances intercultural communication between BFIS friendship families and the international students through understanding, acceptance and celebration of culture.

With more than 20 years living in Boulder, Yerger and her husband, Jerry Gordon, have hosted many live-in international exchange students in their home. Yerger’s desire to become involved with BFIS began after her youngest daughter went abroad to study.

From a mother’s perspective, Yerger understands how it feels when a child is attending school in another country. Their youngest daughter attended high school in Italy for a year and spent her freshman year of college at the Sorbonne in Paris.

“I would have felt so much more comfortable had I known there was a family in Italy and France who could have reached out to my daughter when she was lonely or ill,” Yerger said. “When I heard about BFIS, it seemed like such a good idea.”

Students and families are matched according mutual interests. Since Yerger’s family enjoys music, they are matched with students who share that enthusiasm.

The students do not live with the BFIS families, but meet at least once a month. Typical activities include going to campus or community events, hiking, meeting for coffee, attending a sporting event, sharing a meal or playing games. BFIS also arranges group activities.

“We’re foodies and cook a lot,” Yerger said. “We’ve had students come for dinners, including Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.”

Their current international student is from Malaysia. Nuha comes from a poor family with a single mom who works double shifts to raise five children alone. He qualified for a government scholarship from Malaysia, which pays for his tuition and housing. Since he loves music, Yerger took him to the Performing Arts Center in Denver to see Motown the Musical. Nuha researched the musical before going and learned some of the songs.

“The performers invited the audience to sing along,” Yerger said, “and he was singing along with gusto at the top of his voice. He told me that in Malaysia, only the very wealthy in Kuala Lumpur could afford to go to a live musical concert.”

Yeager has hosted eight graduate students from various locales in Asia through BFIS. She and her husband became close friends with Min Zhang and her family when Zhang was at CU conducting research as a postdoctoctoral student. After Zhang moved to California, they visited her and her family for Thanksgiving.

Yerger met Ellie Cai and her husband, a doctoral candidate, when Ellie was pregnant. Ellie brought the baby and her parents, who were visiting from China, to Yerger’s home for a holiday party last year. It was the first time her parents had been in an American family home.

“It’s an enriching experience for us and for the international students also,” Yerger said. “Helping students to transition to a new culture builds cultural unity one person at a time.”

Learn more about BFIS