Family Matters
NSU’s Friendship Family Program makes sure that every student feels at home.

Family Matters

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Lisa Kanizar, Dominika Blum, and Michael Mohammed comprise the staff that oversees the international student exchange program at NSU. Photo by Troy McQuillen

For many young adults, the beginning of a college career is a time of excitement, with a taste of independence while exploring new faces in new places. But with so many changes in such a short period of time, it can also lead to some anxiety and homesickness – especially if the new school in question is halfway across the globe.

Northern State University has a multifaceted program that is able to help alleviate some of those fears for international students. The NSU Friendship Family Program was designed to make international students feel at home by placing them with a host family. While the students still live in the dorms, they are able to visit households, create friendships, and get a real feel for what it’s like to live in South Dakota. The exchange students can meet NSU students, community members, and other families, all while learning more about American culture here in Aberdeen. In return, host families are able to learn about their exchange student’s culture, customs, traditions, and much more.

“For many students, this is their first time being away from their home and families,” Michael Mohammed said. “This program makes things a little less overwhelming.”

At the beginning of a new semester, a survey is sent out to both students and families that are interested in the Friendship Family Program. The survey includes questions such as how many children are in the family, how many pets a family has, faith, interests, and hobbies, and matchups are made based on their answers. Most of the time, host families can choose how many students they would like to take under their wing, depending on how many students are interested in the program.

“We meet the families ahead of time to make sure that students will feel safe,” Lisa Kanizar said. “But we’ve always had great families. Most of them are long-time participants, but we’re always looking for more. Some families are even in the outer Aberdeen area, so anyone is welcome to apply.”

Since each student is different and will have unique needs, it’s up to them and their host family to decide which activities to do and how often to meet. Ideally, families will meet up at least twice each semester. But many families choose to meet more frequently, having weekly dinners to catch up and doing some activities on their own.

“The program gives international students an extra layer of belonging, security, and safety,” Dominika Blum said. “There are a lot of big changes and unknowns when someone studies abroad. They might not know how to do something or where to go. Families can help these students get to places like the doctor’s office or grocery store. For a lot of students, their English skills improve at a much faster rate as well.”

The Friendship Family Program hosts many events during the year, including an introductory event at the beginning of each semester where students are introduced to their families. While there are some events that are just for the families, there’s plenty of chances for the whole community to get involved. Some of their events have included ice skating, movies, picnics, game nights, and even some Aberdeen Wings hockey games.

“Most families keep in touch with their host students after they return home,” Dominika said. “This program creates relationships that last a lifetime. Some of our families end up being ‘grandparents’ when their students get settled down and start their own families.”

“We’re all unique and different, yet the same deep down inside,” Lisa said. “It’s really special to see how these students and families connect.”

“Each year we typically have 36 different countries that end up coming together in the middle of nowhere!” Dominika joked. “They’re able to expose Aberdeen residents to so many new places around the world that they might not get a chance to visit.”

Not sure if being a host family is right for you? Visit their Facebook page @NSUFriendshipFamily. Or as Dominika advises, “Just do it!” //