In 1953, a small group of Bloomington locals felt like the community could do more to welcome international students attending Indiana University, so they formed the Bloomington Worldwide Friendship organization.
Now, almost 65 years later, the group is still pairing community members with international students to help those new to the United States and Bloomington figure out the lay of the land and feel a little more at home.
Each year the group hosts a picnic toward the beginning of the fall semester at Lake Lemon, a Thanksgiving gathering and an end-of-year potluck where international students share cuisine from their home country. Between organized events, host families invite students to their homes for dinner, introduce them to American traditions like baseball and act as a surrogate family to students who are thousands of miles away from their biological one.
The friendships formed through the organization often extend beyond the students’ time in Bloomington, according to Bloomington Worldwide Friendship president Cindy York.
“These relationships last a lifetime,” York said. “Many hosts have helped plan their students’ weddings, assisted when they have babies and traveled internationally to visit students once they’ve left Bloomington.”
Bloomington Worldwide Friendship is the only nonprofit organization not affiliated with the university to be invited to participate in August orientation for international students. Many students sign up for a host family during orientation, but the organization is present at events hosted throughout the year by the Office of International Services.
Many current hosts are IU faculty and staff looking for ways to get more involved with their community. Read the stories of two IU-employed couples acting as host families:
Coming full circle
When Anna Bragin was a college student studying abroad in Belgium, she relied on her host family to comfort her when she was homesick, process culture shock and provide the occasional home-cooked meal.
When she moved to Bloomington to work first in the Hutton Honors College and then in the IU Office of Overseas Study, she knew she wanted to play that role for international students. York, who is a family friend, encouraged Bragin to become a host with Bloomington Worldwide Friendship. Since joining the organization she’s been host to six students hailing from Singapore to Switzerland.
When Anna married Nick Bragin, who is an associate director in the Walter Center for Career Achievement, he became a host, too. They enjoy taking students to football tailgates, on hikes in Brown County and to local attractions like the Monroe County Historical Museum.
“Hosting has given me more an of appreciation for IU and for Bloomington,” Anna said. “Showing students around town has encouraged me to experience more of the things our community has to offer.”
Even after their students leave the Bloomington community, the Bragins keep up with them. They are connected on social media, a few students attended their wedding, and they even visited one former student in Belgium, where the student was able to flip the script and introduced her culture to them.
The Bragins, who welcomed their first child in August, encourage young families to get involved with Bloomington Worldwide Friendship. Inviting students to tag along on already-planned outings takes little effort and reaps a big reward, Nick said.
“Being involved helps you foster a broader global citizenship,” he said. “It makes you focus more on the things that we all have in common and that bring us together and less on ways that we are different.”
Marie Shakespeare has trouble remembering what it was like before she and her husband, Rob, were hosts with Bloomington Worldwide Friendship.
Marie and Rob, who are lighting design lecturer and professor emeritus respectively, have mentored more than 30 students hailing from countries including Israel, Singapore, Finland, India, Korea, China and Taiwan in their years as hosts.
The two take a particular interest in students from Southeast and East Asia for two reasons: They once lived in Hong Kong, and Rob’s father grew up in India. They understand the inclination to find others who speak the same language and understand your culture instead of exploring new and foreign places, so they try to remove barriers for students.
Photos courtesy of Rob and Marie Shakespeare
The Shakespeares celebrate American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving with their students by hosting dinners, doing crafts and sharing traditions. Each year they host a cookie-decorating party during the holiday season. They’ve taken their students to the demolition derby at the Monroe County Fair. And in return, they’ve received an honorary daughter.
Teja had never been out of her province in India when she arrived in Bloomington. The hospitality the Shakespeares showed, among other factors, helped her decide she didn’t want to leave the United States after graduation. She got a job in Mississippi, then another in Minnesota, but she always returns to Bloomington for Christmas.
“This program is part of an effort to create international peace,” Marie said. “How can you hate a culture once you know someone in that culture? You can’t stereotype countries and cultures once you have a friend from them.”
Those interested in becoming a host family with the Bloomington Worldwide Friendship can apply online.