International roots, homegrown hospitality

The International Friendship Program helps ease international students' adjustment to life in a new country.

Hosts and students gather around the kitchen counter in the Hoyle home.
The Hoyle family has been hosting international students from UNC through the International Friendship Program for more than a decade.

On a recent Sunday evening at the Hoyle family’s home in Chapel Hill, the kitchen filled with the sounds and smells of an international feast in the making. Four undergraduates from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prepared dinner. Siyu “Anita” Chen and Yongwei “Crystal” Zheng stirred the noodles cooking on the stove and scooped fish balls onto dinner plates, as Jialing Jiang and Garbo Liu poured drinks and arranged zong,a sticky rice and chicken dish wrapped in lotus leaves.

Anita and Jialing were connected with Jan and David Hoyle, a married couple with grown children of their own, through the UNC-Chapel Hill International Friendship Program. The Hoyles were hosting them along with others for a family-style meal, blending their guests’ international roots with homegrown Carolina hospitality.

The Friendship Program that introduced Anita and Jialing to the Hoyles matches international students with local families or individuals with whom they can visit, share a meal, celebrate a holiday, participate in community events or simply enjoy the exchange of international friendship. The Hoyles have hosted international students from Carolina for over a decade, with such pleasure that now one of their own children has grown up, moved out of the house and begun hosting students in her home in Durham.

Each year, Carolina brings approximately 1,600 international students to campus. For undergraduates, the move often represents their first time living independently outside of their home country. The separation from family, friends and familiar patterns of daily life often can be challenging and frustrating—and people like the Hoyles help.

“Coming to a new environment is hard to adjust to,” says Jialing. “I’m far from home, and it’s nice to have a local family to share ideas with.”

At the beginning of each academic year, approximately 50 students sign up with the International Friendship Program through the Office of International Student and Scholar Services so they can be matched with a host in the community. The program is designed to ease their adjustment to life in a new country with the support and experiences provided through these relationships.

Jialing and the other students say they enjoy activities with their host family, such as going to the movies and playing ping pong. Anita joined the friendship program because she wanted to experience and better understand family life in America. The Hoyles understand those desires from personal experience when their children studied outside of the country alone.

“When our kids went abroad, we thought about how they were received,” says Jan Hoyle, who remembers how important it was for her children to have someone to turn to when learning everything from local idioms to how to get the laundry done in a new city.

With their own children’s experiences abroad in mind, the Hoyles have sought to provide a family-like network for the international students they host. The Hoyles cover the basics such as grocery store and airport trips, and also take their students to see fireworks displays and watch outdoor films together on the lawn at Southern Village.

”The benefit of the program,” Jan Hoyle says, “is not one-way. We’ve received joy and happiness being involved.”

The Hoyles and their children are all graduates of UNC. Jan earned her nursing degree in 1978, and David earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics in 1976, a doctorate in dental surgery in 1980 and his medical degree in 1989.

When they first joined the friendship program, they hosted students from all around the world. But after visiting China when two of their children lived and studied in the country, they opted to host Chinese students. Chinese students make up over 30- percent of incoming international students at Carolina, so it’s a request the program can usually fulfill.

“Our goal is to match students and families who can build lifelong friendships,” says Jane Rosenberg, the program coordinator and assistant director for student and exchange visitor services at UNC.

Experiencing Campus and Community Life

In 2013, the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Federation initiated a survey of international graduate and professional students to see what kind ofsupport international students needed. The survey revealed that international students struggled with interpersonal relationships, usually as the result of cultural or language barriers.

“We have learned that students make a faster and easier transition to the university when they have good support networks. Our international friendship program helps students create supportive relationships,” says Elizabeth Barnum, director of International Student and Scholar Services. “Through their host families, students are able to learn about cultural nuances, practice language in a comfortable environment and have someone to lean on for the kinds of support they would have received from family and friends at home.”

The program also helps introduce students to the community with outings to local restaurants and other venues. With growing confidence in their role as Chapel Hill community members, international students volunteer, babysit and work in nursing homes and homes for children.

Jialing has tutored students in an afterschool program through the Helping Youth by Providing Enrichment (HYPE) program at the UNC Campus Y, worked with Habitat for Humanity building homes and helped establish the campus club Pandamonium, which seeks to foster friendship between Chinese and American students. Anita, who is studying business and mathematics, has volunteered with a program that connects trained UNC students to local low- and middle-income taxpayers who need assistance completing tax returns.

These kinds of opportunities provide international students with the insight into American life that many hoped for when deciding to study at Carolina. Having a sense of local family support deepens these connections.

“The families that host us make us feel like family,” says Garbo, one of the students invited to cook and eat at the Hoyles’ house on that recent Sunday.

Just another example of how the program is achieving its goal to help students feel at home in Chapel Hill.

Community members interested in hosting an international student enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill and international students interested in finding a host family can apply to the program through the Office of International and Student and Scholar Services.