By Hung Tran
It was during a brief phone call when Maria Kummer, Friends of International Students (FIS) board member, let Olayinka Oladimeji, a doctoral student in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Iowa, know that she was praying for her family back home in Nigeria because of an upsurge in violence.
Although it was a seemingly small gesture, it was later revealed to Kummer that her words meant a lot to Oladimeji, solidifying a connection to an extended family here in Iowa City. This relationship helped Oladimeji alleviate some of the stresses stemming from the violence that threatened her family as well the college workload.
In 2009, Kummer’s sincerity was realized when she was invited to attend Oladimeji’s wedding.
“We can never be too busy,” Kummer said. “Even very brief attention matters. If you care about a person, then it matters.”
When the time permits, Kummer’s involvement with FIS expands beyond phone calls to a variety of activities, ranging from coffee and tea, music shows, or Kernels baseball games, but especially during Thanksgiving when Kummer and her husband Kevin invite students into their home to celebrate the American holiday.
Among the many other Iowa City volunteers, Kummer’s commitment to the international community will be one of the reasons why FIS will be celebrating its 40th anniversary with the Office of International Education and Services (OIES) on Tuesday, Nov.15, as part of International Education Week. The event will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. in the University Capitol Centre, Room 1117.
In 1971, Stephen Arum became the first director of OIES. He had a long-term vision for the university of creating an integrated, multipurpose international education office to help unify Iowa City and the growing international enrollment.
One aspect of this mission was host family programs that had already existed in other university communities in the U.S.
Arum encouraged the development of a similar program in Iowa City in response to two interests — foreign students who wanted to meet local families to learn about American culture, and local families who wanted to make international friends and learn about their differing ways of life.
However, at the time, Arum also was in the ambitious process of initiating various programs, such as the International Classroom Journey, the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities, and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, all with only a graduate assistant, a secretary, and himself.
With his hands full, Arum looked to two community volunteers, an American and a foreign student, who agreed to work on the project , and the International Host Family Program (IHFP) was established in the fall of 1971.
Arum recalls the early days of the program, specifically during an international desserts fundraiser at the house of former UI President William Boyd and his wife Susan. During this event, foreign students taught their host families how to make their home countries’ desserts and then sold them at the president’s house.
“This combined fundraising and lots of interaction between the American host families and the foreign students,” Arum said.
This flourishing interaction between American host families and the foreign students carried on even after the two initial volunteers left Iowa City. In their absence, volunteer after volunteer took on the vital responsibilities.
Under Margaret Nowysz’s leadership, IHFP expanded its members and activities. It included a spring reception to honor graduating foreign students and neighborhood gatherings for families and students.
In 1976, IHFP became a more formalized program with a board of community volunteers to help recruit, match students and families, and organize activities.
Needless to say, the University of Iowa has changed significantly since then.
Over 3,300 international students now walk daily through campus. OIES merged with the Center for International and Comparative Studies (CICS) and other units to become International Programs. The International Host Family Program has now become Friends of International Students (FIS). However, FIS’s purpose and reasons for success remain consistent even after forty years.
FIS has been sustained through years of enduring leadership that has passed from Arum to the two initial volunteers, Nowysz, and now to Ken Royar, current FIS president.
Today, Royar and the numerous community volunteers continue to embody grass-roots diplomacy as they extend the hand of welcome and friendship to UI international students and at the same time expand local knowledge of world cultures.
“I feel this program is too vital to the university, the students, and the people of the Iowa City area to be leaderless,” Royar said. “It has been a win-win situation for both friend and student as the world barriers have been dropped and new relations forged.”