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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Gainesville nonprofit connects international students and Gainesville residents for the holidays

The program is designed to combat student isolation and promote cultural exchanges

As the holiday season approaches, most students flock from Gainesville to visit friends and family for Thanksgiving and Christmas, among other winter holidays, leaving many UF international students feeling estranged from the festivities. Alone and unable to return to their families abroad, this time of year can be isolating as cities shut down for the holidays.

“Everything is closed and the place feels like a ghost town,” Marta Wayne, director of the UF International Center, said. 

To mitigate this problem, the Greater Gainesville International Center is partnering with the UFIC to match international students with host families in Gainesville for the holidays. 

The goal is to connect people during this difficult and isolating time, GGIC president and former Gainesville mayor Lauren Poe said.

“But I think more than anything, just being welcoming,” Poe said. “Saying, ‘Hey, we see you, we know that this is a difficult time.’ Just be more inclusive to folks who are cut off from our American traditions.”

A prospective host family will invite its international students for meals and activities on significant cultural holidays, including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's and Ramadan among others.

“We’re interested in families sharing meals or meeting students for coffee,” Wayne said. “Ideally, the connection will last all year.”

Apart from the benefit to the students, Poe and Wayne hope the interactions will go both directions.

“We’re also hoping the program will facilitate cultural exchange between the students and the Gainesville family they are matched with,” Wayne said. 

Poe agreed, adding: “It would be a really important opportunity for the families to meet new people and learn about someone else's traditions and cultural identity.”

Terrence Ho, a GGIC board member, signed up to be a holiday host in honor of his personal experiences abroad. In his years abroad, over 100 families have hosted him. 

“I've experienced and given hospitality to people all over the world for many, many, many years,” Ho said. “And it to me seems to be the main thing that cures xenophobia, ignorance. That's the sort of stuff that I just wish I could keep paying forward.”

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Something Ho has noticed among international students is their insular nature.

“For instance, a lot of people in the Chinese community will just stay within the Chinese community and hang out with Chinese people,” Ho said. “My advice would be to do less of that, to mix with other people, to make the effort to meet people who you don't know anything about.”

This holiday season marks the launch of the Friendship Families program. Poe plans to start small and build up this brand-new program gradually. This season, there are about twenty host families, with each family hosting between one and five students at a time. 

Aside from expanding to more families, Wayne hopes this support system can extend beyond the holidays and further cement the family-student connection.

“One additional nice feature would be if families came to graduation,” Wayne said. “Some of our international students’ families can’t be here for graduation due to financial, health, or visa limitations; it’s nice to have someone on-site cheering for you after all your hard work.”

Contact Eluney Gonzalez at Follow him on Twitter @Eluney_G.

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