Foster relatives, foreign students : A win-win relationship

Shan Wu, 25, of China, is carving a Thanksgiving turkey at his foster relatives’. “They become like an extended family,” the dinner host said of Wu and other foreign students.

“I get to improve my awareness of the world outside of my little town.”

An Evanston, Ill., woman has been opening the door to her house to foreign students, of whom she is a foster relative, for get-togethers for the last six years.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Sylvia Alvino, 63, vice-president of the Foster Relative program through which she met the students. “It gives me the occasion to speak a bit of French and I’m now much more aware of what’s happening in Europe.”

Recalling how he struggled to adapt to the U.S. mentality when he arrived from France, in September 2010, PHD student in mechanical engineering, Alban de Vaucorbeil, 25, said the Alvino’s were a real support.

“It’s like you have a family to whom you can speak when you feel down,” de Vaucorbeil said. “You can ask them anything you don’t understand about the culture or the language. It’s experiencing America, the real one.”

Alban de Vaucorbeil (left) introduces his sister-in-law (on the left) to his foster relatives, Sylvia and Bob Alvino. “It’s experiencing America, the real one,” de Vaucorbeil said.

Li Zeng, 22, of China, was the judge of the costume competition that took place during a Halloween party at friends of his foster relatives. “I announced the winner, it was so cool,” said Zeng, who gave the host couple the winning prize to thank them for their party.

“When I applied, I knew the program would be really helpful to learn about American life,” said Zeng, who left his hometown for the first time this summer, as he came alone to the U.S. Has he improved his knowledge of the U.S. on his third month into the program?

“Yes, my relatives are really patient and answer all the questions that I keep asking. When we go out for dinner, I ask questions about the food; questions about the origins of Thanksgiving, for example,” Zeng said. “When we watch football, I ask questions about the rules and the players.”

Mary Lucas, 69, has been a foster relative for the last 15 years. She is currently paired with three students: a Chinese, a Mexican and a Colombian, whose wife and 3-year-old daughter always come along to her place.

“My Spanish husband doesn’t have any family in the U.S. and I don’t have any in this area”, said Lucas, who is the co-chair of the program. “For us, the students become like an extended family. We always celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with them.”

Foster Relative is a program provided by the Community Council for International Students, a group of volunteers who seek to make Northwestern University students feel welcome in the U.S.

International students hear about the program mostly at the social events they attend during their summer preparation classes at the International Summer Institute ⎯ a branch of the NU linguistic department, which collaborates with CCIS.

“There are between 30 and 50 new students to foster every year,” said Alvino . The majority of students in the program come from Asian countries such as China, Korea and Japan, but there are also students from Europe and South America.