Barbara Simmons had worked in Lehigh’s office of communications for 15 years when she learned of an opportunity to get to know international students on a personal level.
It was the late 1980s. The Council for International Students/Scholars Hospitality (CISH) was asking members of the faculty and staff to consider hosting the students for holiday meals.
Over the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, CISH reasoned, when most American students return home, students and scholars from other countries might need a “home away from home” in the Lehigh Valley.
“I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity,” said Simmons, who is now semi-retired. “The students were a blessing to us, but I think we gained far more from them than maybe they did from us.”
CISH was founded in the 1980s by retired professors. It disbanded in the 1990s but was revived two years ago by the Office of International Affairs.
Impromptu culinary exchanges
Since then, CISH has promoted strong ties between international students and Americans. There have been instances when an American family provides a classic Italian meal one night and Chinese students conjure up their own cuisine the next night. While the students experience American culture, Americans gain insight into the customs of a vastly different society.
“You can read about a culture and travel to a country, but you will always be a step away,” said Simmons. “Once you’re invited into a home, then you share the culture.”
Elcin Cetinkaya, a graduate student in industrial engineering, serves as a representative for international students.
“I have made lists of what students need when they first come to the United States,” said Cetinkaya, who is from Turkey. “I’ve also asked students to talk about what we should know about life in Bethlehem before we arrive.
“To this day, I am still impressed by how helpful all of the CISH members have been.”
Muriel Pense, an original member of CISH, said that providing services to international students helps them acculturate to the U.S. more easily.
“When students leave home, they leave their support groups behind. CISH decided that they needed volunteers to take care of life needs,” she said.
A need for more volunteers
CISH is made up of Lehigh students and members of the local community. Volunteers help international students store belongings over breaks. They drive them to doctor’s appointments or the grocery store, or simply provide a home-cooked meal.
Seven or eight churches are also involved in the program, said Pense.
“For a fall foliage tour, one church took students on a trip to the mountains, where they had their first true camping experience. Another church invited internationals to join them for a Thanksgiving dinner and taught them how this American tradition began.”
Gene Mater, housing chair for CISH, said the program can lead to “unexpected friendships.
“Sometimes you meet someone and just hit it off. A ride provided to the grocery store of or mall can lead to a lifetime friendship,” he said.
Stacy Burger, liaison between international students and community members, said CISH is looking for more volunteers.
“We are in the process of getting more volunteers and would really love to tap into our undergraduate and graduate domestic student population,” she said. “We would also like more community members to join.”
For more information, visit http://volunteer.sites.lehigh.edu/users/add or email inCISH@lehigh.edu.
Story by Angela Farren '13
Posted on Tuesday, December 04, 2012