The University of Iowa

Sparking international friendships

August 27th, 2012

UI group hosts picnic to introduce community to foreign students

By Alesha L. Crews, The Iowa City Press-Citizen

About 700 first-time international students came to Iowa City this fall, bringing the international student total to about 3,700. These students represent 111 countries and are a part of every field of academic study available at UI.

For these students, making the move to Iowa City can be nerve-racking, exciting and, at times, a downright daunting experience.

For 41 years, the University of Iowa Friends of International Students has worked to make the transition to America easier by connecting international students with members of the Iowa City community — called friends — to help the students feel more comfortable away from home and introduce them to American culture and customs.

“The basic belief is that by getting students and volunteers together, the world becomes smaller through growth and understanding of one another,” said organization president Ken Royer, who has been involved for eight years and has served as a friend to students from Jordan, China and Kenya.

“As we come to know and understand one another, and grow in appreciation for one another, the prospect of peace is much greater,” Royer said.

On Saturday, the organization hosted a welcome back picnic for international students and friends, who met in Lower City Park and ate a buffet filled with American and international dishes.

Iowa City residents Lynn and Bonnie Gingerich, both 62, have been volunteering as friends for 13 years and have had more than a dozen friends from around the world. The couple said they became involved with the program because of a strong interest in international cultures and customs.

“It’s very enriching to meet people from different countries and learn about their cultures and customs and ways of life,” Bonnie Gingerich said.

Each year they invite students into their home and introduce them to American culture and prepare traditional meals to share.

They said they have gained as much from the experience as the students have gained from them.

Yulia Rybakova, 25, came to Iowa City three weeks ago from her home in Moscow to study biology at UI. She said her new home seems like a “very quiet, comfortable place” to live, but she hasn’t met many people yet.

She said she hopes to meet people from the United States and people from other countries through the program. Above all, she said she was looking for company as well as a “person who knows this country and place (to) show it to me.”

The program is in the process of matching students with American friends for this school year, but Royer said there is a great need for additional friends for the growing international program.

“There are always more students than friends,” Royer said.