Generations of Whitman international students form tight-knit bonds through the college's Friendship Family program-and the goodwill and learning go both ways.
When Margarita "Maggi" Banderas '05 arrived at Whitman from Quito, Ecuador, more than 15 years ago, she was overwhelmed and knew little about her new surroundings. The Hodgsons, a family with three kids, had her over for dinner and eased her integration.
They had just moved in next door to then-International Student and Scholar Adviser Kris Barry. She encouraged them to join Whitman's Friendship Family program, which she ran from 1994 until her retirement in 2015.
"With all of us being new to town, a strong connection developed very quickly," Banderas recalled. "I went over to their house and had long conversations about all kinds of things. They wanted to learn about me, my family, my country, and they helped me understand a lot about U.S. culture and traditions. We played cards a lot, something I grew up with, and they taught me new games."
She continued, "The amount of time that I spent with them ebbed and flowed depending on their schedules and how things changed for me through my four years, but they were always there for me, providing a familiar grounding from which to work through all the culture shock and homesickness as I navigated my college experience."
Jeanne Hodgson, a former ESL teacher, said, "It was really fun being part of her life and helping her get settled. She fit into our family like she'd been there for a long time."
The Hodgsons also hosted Banderas' parents when they attended her graduation. Banderas majored in art history and visual culture studies, earned her master's in student affairs from Colorado State University and now serves as assistant director of Whitman's Intercultural Center-where one of her responsibilities is spearheading the program that had meant so much to her as a student.
"One of the really critical things about this program is how unique it can be for each individual student and family," Banderas said. "Like all students, international students have their own individual needs and interests and an important part of my role is matching them to the right family for the support they need," she continued. The Intercultural Center sponsors three dinners each year for friendship families and encourages each pair to find a balanced relationship that works on both sides.
"I love how the program creates opportunities for families that are not related to Whitman to connect with students here, and how families of staff and faculty members can connect with students in a way that wouldn't otherwise be possible," Banderas added. "It allows international students the opportunity to expand their connections to the Walla Walla community in a way that is meaningful."
About 50 students and their corresponding families currently participate in the Friendship Family program. It has paired international students with local families for more than four decades. (To read about another Friendship Family participant, see page 28.) Many friendship family relationships continue for years, even decades, after the time at Whitman.
"Administering such a program puts us in a minority group of colleges and universities that help their international community integrate in such a way," said International Student and Scholar Adviser Kyle Martz, who coordinated the program from 2015 to 2017 under that role. "As someone who had exchange students at home in high school, and who later became one himself, I think these types of intercultural relationships are very important, both for overcoming culture shock and successfully completing the cultural adjustment process."
Since the Friendship Family program was founded, the number of international students at Whitman has risen dramatically-from about 2 percent in the late 1980s to nearly 7 percent today. Friendship family students make up around half of all international students at Whitman. Sometimes they face hardships in adjusting to college life in a foreign country: homesickness, language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, to name a few.
"It is difficult enough moving your life to a town that you must initially insist to your family-and, in secret, to yourself-is a real place," quipped Nanda Maw Lin '10, who majored in politics and art and directs a design agency in Yangon in his home country of Myanmar. "Jetlag and completely foreign social cues did me in a few weeks into the semester, although I wasn't willing to admit it. Friendship families helped with the secret yearning for a much-needed home away from home."
Sharon Ndayambaje '21, hailing from Kigali, Rwanda, remembers a grueling journey followed by feelings of isolation on campus as she acclimated to drastically different weather and food.
"English being my third language, I found it hard to laugh at jokes, and I had to quickly learn so many new words," she said. "Shifting from speaking my language, Kinyarwanda, all the time to speaking only English was exhausting at first, but it gets easier with time."
James and Jennifer Winchell, retired adjunct assistant professor of foreign languages and stewardship coordinator for Whitman, respectively, serve as Ndayambaje's friendship family. They helped Ndayambaje prepare her wardrobe for winter weather and have taken her out for Mexican food, her favorite new cuisine. She also celebrated Hanukkah with them.
The benefit is mutual. "We feel especially grateful to her for teaching us more about Rwanda," said Jennifer Winchell. "We've learned quite a bit about Sharon's daily life at home and the current Rwandan government. It reminds you how little most of us know about the rest of the world."
Barry explained that international students' experiences in the United States "are enriched by meeting people of different ages" who act as surrogate siblings, parents or grandparents, stepping in if students need a ride or a sympathetic ear. The interplay between the host families and international students provides "a world-expanding experience." And friendship families offer a balm for bouts of sadness-especially for those who cannot afford to go home for summer breaks.
"There are times when I get really homesick, but every time I am at my friendship family's house, I feel like I am at home," said Buyaki Nyatichi '20, a German studies and computer science major from Nairobi, Kenya.
"I have also enjoyed telling them more about my culture. I found that lot of people are scared of asking me about myself because they are scared of offending me, but with my friendship family, I feel like I have the space to be myself."
For Laurinda Nyarko '19, a chemistry major from Accra, Ghana, her friendship family's "resemblance to my actual family is incredible. They are always available when I need them and they do their best to support me in any way that they can," she said. "It makes such a big difference to have people you can call family and rely on-people who love you like family and help you make the best out of your time here."
Many friendship families include their international students in American holidays as a way to introduce them to new traditions.
"Having a friendship family really helped because they'd invite me to come over during the holidays that have family traditions such as Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Nyarko. "They really taught me how American families celebrate these holidays."
Nandin "Nadia" Ganjoloo '21, from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, credited her friendship family, Walter Froese, Whitman controller, and Danielle Swan-Froese, program coordinator for Walla Walla Community College's Institute for Enology and Viticulture, for helping her "immerse into American culture" through such gatherings. Last year, she joined their Thanksgiving table.
"It was fun to share our Thanksgiving traditions and to learn about what traditions and holidays are special to the Mongolian culture," said Swan-Froese. Student and family also exchanged presents: Ganjoloo gave a replica of a traditional Mongolian instrument and an illustration, while she received a hat and mittens. "I admire her spirit for adventure," said Swan-Froese. "She is really a delight-very smart, kind and personable."
And Betty Zhang '20, a sociology and rhetoric studies major from Hangzhou, China, said her friendship family gave her a pair of stockings as a Christmas gift so she could bundle up.
Even with the support of friendship families, international students may confront inevitable confusion navigating a new country. Peijun "Peipei" Cai '21 from Guangzhou, China, was surprised at the number of Whitties wearing brands like Birkenstock and Patagonia and worried about purchasing root beer, assuming it was alcoholic. Talking through "highs and lows" with her friendship family while making cookies or going shopping smoothed the way and made Walla Walla "feel like home."
Nyatichi recalled her first time at the Walmart checkout line. "I had my little pocket money from home and I was putting things into the cart while keeping track of the cost," she said. "Little did I know that, unlike in Kenya, the price on the shelf does not include tax. So when the cashier told me the price, I was ready to tell her how they must have put the wrong prices on the shelf."
The expectation to tip at restaurants bewildered Yohan Jeon '21, from Seoul, South Korea. Apprehensive about leaving Asia for the first time and facing a new continent alone, he appreciates having a "friendly and humorous" friendship family to get to know.
Evgeniya Sicheva '18 from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, enjoys getting to know her friendship family's children and grandchildren and practicing her language detective skills by deciphering phrases her friendship dad remembers his grandparents, who spoke some combination of Polish, Czech or Croatian, using. "He would throw a few words at me to see how similar they are to Russian," she said. "Sometimes we understand each other."
Whitman's trap shooting club interested Haoming "Ovi" He, a Sherwood Scholar from Shantou University in China, because his home country forbids guns. "I amazed my friends when I hit my first three shots!" He took advantage of a partnership between the two schools that brings one Chinese student to Whitman each fall to learn about American culture and refine his or her English skills while promoting understanding of Chinese culture.
His friendship family, Off-Campus Studies Coordinator Laura Cummings and her husband, Ted, a retired Walla Walla High School math, science and physical education teacher and tennis and volleyball coach, also took him to volleyball and basketball games.
"Ovi is enthusiastic, bright, inquisitive, honest, reliable and a great communicator," Laura said. "He will sometimes email me a question of how best to handle a situation with his roommate, work or school, and after emailing back and forth a bit or visiting in my office, he comes up with a successful plan."
The friendship family of politics and environmental studies major Ted Liu '18, from Changchun, China, helped him get a driver's license and buy his first car, he said.
Sicheva's friendship family, in addition to taking her out to eat and checking up on her during stressful times like midterms and finals, took her to her first rodeo. "It was truly an American experience," she said.
Some friendship families participate in the program for many years, make it a type of branch of their family tree. Mary Jo Fontenot, a retired reading teacher at Green Park Elementary School, counts almost 30 years of volunteering. She fondly recalled when family members of one student from Mongolia came for a visit. "I made a special dinner of Louisiana gumbo honoring her graduation. Granddad wanted the recipe! It was so touching and sweet." The grandfather made a speech thanking Fontenot and her kin for their hospitality; the student translated it.
Retired Whitman Bookstore director Douglas Carlsen '74 and his wife, Mary Cleveland '82, who is in charge of the local Aging & Long Term Care office, have been involved since the early 1990s and still keep in touch with all of their past friendship students, who hail from Brazil, Japan and many other nations.
"It was always special when our students would ask to come over without invitation," he said.
Carlsen also referenced Christmas tree decorating and trips to Palouse Falls State Park-as well as attempting to explain the plot of It's a Wonderful Life to an international student unfamiliar with the 1946 film's portrayal of angels.
"We have watched them become adults, some married with children," he said.
Yuan-Ming Chiao '03 majored in history at Whitman and works as a special officer for the Eden Social Welfare Foundation in Taipei, the capital of his native Taiwan. Having grown up primarily in the United States, he was unsure whether he would benefit from a friendship family. However, he ultimately connected with the Carlsens.
"Whether it was holiday dinners, attending productions at the local Little Theatre of Walla Walla or just having an impromptu conversation, both of them helped me overcome some of the solitude associated with long durations away from home," he said.
"On my last day in Walla Walla, I had somehow missed my flight to Seattle that was to take me back to Taiwan. Douglas and Mary drove me from Walla Walla in a subsequently unsuccessful bid to catch another connecting flight in a neighboring town," he said. "It was a mini-road trip, race against time, full of contingencies, that both approached with such ease and aplomb that I remember fondly still. That night while dining together, I urged them to visit us in Taiwan. Lo and behold, they both arrived in Taiwan a few months later."
In 2014, former program coordinator Barry organized a 40th anniversary celebration honoring friendship families going back to the mid-1970s. Around that time, former Intercultural Center director Mark Francis '77 asked volunteer Joyce Fogg to head the effort, according to Barry. Fogg died in 2017; her obituary lists her longtime leadership of the program as "a wonderful legacy." Banderas, who considered Fogg a dear friend, said her determination "is what motivates me and inspires me in moving this program forward."
Banderas and her husband, Walla Walla Community College Development Specialist Matt Zimmerman Banderas '04, pay it forward by serving as a friendship family themselves. They've done so since 2006; last year, the couple flew to Aligarh, India, to celebrate the wedding of their first friendship student, Neda Ansaari '10, a psychology major and counselor.
"To this day I call her my ‘baby daughter.' That was an amazing experience to have the opportunity to be part of her support network," said Maggi Banderas. (They also hosted Ansaari's father when he journeyed to Whitman for his daughter's graduation.) "We haven't looked back since-Neda knows she has a friendship family here, and we not only gained a daughter, but an entire family on the other side of the world."