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Sunday, May 26, 2024

International scholars find home away from home

When international students, scholars and businesspeople come to Davis for study or work, there’s one aspect that International House Executive Director and foreign host Elisabeth Sherwin consistently hears about from her guests: the cleanliness.

“If you’ve gone to Mexico or any third-world countries, [you know] people aren’t as fastidious as we are about litter and disposing of trash. We’re really very good about it in Davis,” Sherwin said. “Almost invariably people say that Davis is very clean.”

Sherwin is just one of hundreds of Davis residents who open their doors to some of the thousands of people from around the world who spend weeks and sometimes months living and learning in Davis each year. For these Davis ambassadors, providing a home for visitors is just part of the job.

Sherwin has hosted students and scholars from Eastern Europe, Finland and Belgium, usually for about three weeks at a time. As executive director of the International House, she helps government programs such as agricultural groups from Europe find home-stays.

Visitors also find host families by signing up with the Worldwide International Student Exchange Foundation (WISE). Students studying at universities around the Sacramento area are placed with families who commit to hosting them for the duration of their stay.

These families must be approved by WISE and undergo an orientation session before being assigned a student. Every student must be provided his or her own room, desk, internet access and meals, said WISE Coordinator Teri Barr. Host families are compensated for providing room and board.

“The difference between renting a room and being with a host family is developing that bond and that nurturing,” Barr said. “It’s just a safety net for our students.”

After finalizing plans with her guest, one of the first things Sherwin does is find out her guests’ eating preferences. For the many eastern Europeans who are devout Muslims, that is often followed by a trip to an international food market. Foods popular in the United States may not go over well with people from other cultures.

“Once I made a girl from Armenia meatloaf. I like to put onions in meatloaf, but she didn’t like onions and didn’t tell me that,” Sherwin said. “I had to answer the phone during dinner and by the time I came back she had separated all the onions out from the meat, so there was a little pile of onions on her plate. So you just have to ask what people like.”

At the same time, Barr cautioned hosts against feeling pressured to cook food of their guest’s culture.

“I had a host mother ask, ‘If I take a Chinese student, will they like my cooking?’ She was Mexican American,” Barr said. “I said, ‘Absolutely, you are not to cook Chinese food for them.’ They are here to experience American culture.”

Finding out how comfortable exchange students are with having pets in the house is often another necessary preparation, as visitors from rural areas often believe that animals should be kept outside, Sherwin said.

“They don’t want them walking around the kitchen or jumping on the bed and sometimes that can be a problem. They just think we treat our animals exceedingly well and that kind of surprises them,” she said.

Sherwin often encourages her guests to visit local attractions like the Crocker Art Museum, San Francisco and the national parks. The UC Davis Arboretum is also a popular spot to tour.

Barr and Shannon Johnson, another coordinator at WISE, said students usually find Davis to be warm and friendly, and enjoy experiencing Davis traditions like bike riding and the Davis Farmers Market.

Visitors sometimes report that the United States has more rules than their home country, such as for parking, driving, and keeping dogs on leashes.

Barr has found that students from Asia are often surprised to see Davis’ ethnic diversity.

“They perceive American families as peanut butter and jelly, blonde, blue eyes, Brady Bunch. They don’t realize until they get here that there are many nationalities,” Barr said.

In the same vein, American hosts shouldn’t assume their guests think the United States is better than their home country, Sherwin said. Her guests have told her that their neighborhoods are much more close-knit than American neighborhoods. Neighbors often know about their trip to the United States and even help them get ready.

Barr, Sherwin and Johnson agreed that the key to being a successful host is to take an interest in the guest and treat them as a member of the family. Asking about their family and friends back home is just as important as providing a place to stay.

“Families who receive the highest marks on their evaluations from students will take their students places, invite them to family and friend outings, eat dinner with them regularly and show concern for them – for example, showing them how to use the local public transportation,” Johnson said in an e-mail interview.

For both the host and guest, developing bonds and learning about a new culture are the ultimate rewards.

“For the most part, I think almost all of them don’t want to go home,” Barr said.

ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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