The International Friendship House: Home Away from Home

This post was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of "Alive Together" magazine.

As a foreign student, coming to college in America is indeed a thrilling experience. Students face many adjustments: new school, new professors, new subjects, new friends, new food, and new culture. In the midst of coping with cultural and social struggles all at once, international students usually feel stressed-out, helpless, lonely, and frustrated. Although study abroad nowadays may seem less difficult, the spiritual needs are often not satisfied. But things turn for the better here in the University District, because the students have their home away from home—The International Friendship House (IFH).

Throughout the history of the IFH, the ministry has reached thousands of students around the globe. Recently, staff writer Joyce Lee sat down with Alice, a current IFH resident, who shared her challenges as an international in Seattle, how she has found a home at the IFH, and why she has a vision for reaching out to newcomers.

Joyce:What is one of the greatest challenges you face as an international student in Seattle?

Alice: I lack a sense of belonging at UW. There are more than 42,000 students attending the school, it is hard for me to put down roots in any of the communities on campus (it’s too big and diverse). To be honest, I was able to make friends with a couple [of fellow students], but since we lived far away from each other, it was hard to hang out. That’s where the loneliness came from: it’s when you thought you found a group of friends, but you didn’t feel like you really were belonging there. With all these factors, I didn’t know how and where to find a “right-fit” community at the campus.

J: How did you find out about the IFH?

A: I found out about it when my mom visited me and helped me look for a Chinese community in the area. We checked out UPC’s Global Friends. At the same time, I was also having troubles with my ex-housemate and I was looking for housing in the U District. I asked Stew, who’s in charge of Global Friends, to see if he had any suggestions for me. He connected me with Polly and Kristen, the house managers of the IFH.

J:Why did you decide to stay at the IFH?

A: I joined a Tuesday night dinner at the IFH before deciding to stay at the house and I enjoyed my first visit. People are super friendly and caring. Also, I love the idea of gathering the multiethnic guests at the dinner to share our ups and downs with each other. I finally found a group that I am comfortable hanging out with.

The IFH reaches out to international guests through hospitality and offers international students opportunities to build friendships with other international students and Americans. In addition to housing students, the community free and home-cooked dinners every Tuesday night at the house and welcomes people ofall faiths or non-faith to the events.

J:What makes the IFH so unique to the international students?

A: As internationals, we share similar cultural backgrounds. More importantly, we have warmed to the struggles of being a foreign student in the States. On top of this, it is a safe and cozy environment to build relationships with not just internationals, but also with the Americans. I treasure the conversations I have in the Tuesday night dinners. I feel that people really want to get to know me and are always there to share my happiness and worries. They pay attention to what you say and respond positively.

J: Nowadays, what do international students need the most?

A: There are several levels of needs that we want. First, we need friends with whom to spend our time. We came from collectivist societies; we desire to settle in groups. Second, we want to have friends that we can lean on. Lastly, we seek for guidance in all aspects, from academic to spiritual. Of course, different people may have various needs.

J: With all the experiences you bring to the table, what vision do you have for this house?

A: I would like to strengthen the idea that the IFH serves as the middle person to connect Americans with international students. It is important for us to move forward in connecting internationals with Americans. We need to invite more locals to the community so that we can truly experience American culture and be able to relate ourselves to America society.

The community needs your support. I challenge you to actively step into the ministry, learn of different cultures, and empower our internationals to participate in a Christian community.

According to Institute of International Education’s Open Door yearly report, more than 800,000 foreign students studied at US colleges and universities in the 2012–13 school year, with a significant 40% increase in international student enrollment rates over the past decade. Locally, at the University of Washington, international student enrollment rates climbed up from 8.6% to 14.3% (3,660 to 5,779 students) between autumn 2010 and spring 2014 with total enrollments of 42,446 and 40,424 respectively.

Joyce Lee  graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Communications. She  completed an internship with the University Presbyterian Church Communications Team and was also a resident at the International Friendship House.