Patty Urbon’s home has always been a gathering place for family and friends, whether as a place to stay or as the site for holiday celebrations and family get-togethers. She comes by hospitality naturally, as her family has long opened their home to others—even hosting an exchange student from Mexico when Urbon was a young child.
“It’s my nature to open the house and be with people,” said Urbon, director of faculty affairs at the School of Medicine and a host with Case Western Reserve University’s International Friendship Program.
The program matches international students with faculty, staff, alumni and friends to help students adjust to life in the U.S. The students don’t live with their hosts, but rather join the families for such activities as a home-cooked meal or a trip to local attractions. To date, 329 students have participated in the program.
In 2013, Urbon and her husband, Brad, welcomed Nico Wei and his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée Ying-Hsin Chen, both PhD candidates in biochemistry from Taiwan. While Wei was the one assigned to the Urbons, they consider Chen a “bonus” addition to their family.
“Because Nico’s and my families are far away from here, [the Urbons] are our families and friends in this country,” Chen said. “We like to share everything with them—no matter [if it’s] happiness or sadness.”
More recently, the Urbons added Mengxia Lu, a master’s student at the Weatherhead School of Management, and Xinyao Tang, a PhD candidate in engineering, both from China, to their family.
Together, the Urbons and the students have shared meals, holiday traditions and family gatherings, and visited local sites, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and Blossom Music Center.
While the students have learned about the U.S. through the experience, the exchange of cultures has gone both ways.
Chen and Wei make traditional Taiwanese food for the Urbons and their family to try. Urbon often asks the students about their countries to gain a better perspective on their respective cultures.
“Through this kind of sharing, we can understand cultural differences between countries,” Chen said.
And through the program, the Urbons and students now count each other as friends.
“I don’t feel in a parental position—it just feels like I’m a friend,” Urbon said. “They don’t need us, per se; they’re grown.”
But the program offers a support system for the students who otherwise might not know anyone else in the country.
“What I enjoyed most is the feeling of belonging to a big family,” Lu said.
Host families also can provide assistance to international students when they find themselves in unfamiliar—and even unfortunate—situations. Soon after meeting the Urbons, for example, Wei’s backpack and laptop were stolen from an apartment. Urbon called the apartment management and persuaded them to share the security footage with Chen and Wei.
“Patty and Brad are our backing here,” Chen said. “Patty also wrote a letter to reassure my parents that Brad and she would take care of us. We really appreciate their thoughtful and kind care.”
Program organizers are always seeking new host families, as each year there are more students than hosts with whom they can match.
“I would certainly recommend the program,” Urbon said. “I would like to think that if my kids were somewhere, somebody would be kind to them and engage them somehow.”