Indiana State University Newsroom

Global Support: Local program fosters international friendships

January 30, 2012

When Indiana State University graduate Nghiem Minh Nguyet first arrived on campus in 2006, she didn't know many people. Only two other students from her home country of Vietnam were attending ISU, and she had not yet been introduced to many others.

A local program created by accident helped solve that problem.

Nguyet joined the International Students' Friendship Program, which introduces international students at ISU, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and Interlink Language Center to each other and to host families. Through a variety of activities, the host families expose the students to American culture while the students teach the families about their backgrounds.

"These people were my family members in the United States," said Nguyet, who graduated from ISU in 2008 with her MBA. "They helped me understand a lot more about the hospitality of American people, and at the same time, they made me feel like I had a home away from home."

Terre Haute resident Pat Grigg initiated the program more than 20 years ago, with support from her husband, Rose-Hulman professor Cliff Grigg. They would host Rose-Hulman students who remained in the Wabash Valley over holiday breaks when the campus would be closed. Pat Grigg was invited to an international student orientation at Indiana State, and she began inviting international students who would remain at ISU over holiday breaks as well.

"I thought hosting large groups was just a one-time thing. But it became a program which included other families and American students," Grigg said. "The families in Terre Haute, especially our friends and the students were interested in continuing the service, and we just blossomed from there. The program is successful because of the generosity and kindness of the people in this community, and the cooperation and assistance from the colleges and university and the interest of the students. It takes many participants to organize and maintain this service."

The gatherings considered to be the organization's roots began more than two decades ago; with a few gaps between years, the program has continued to unite international college students in the Wabash Valley with local families volunteering to host them. Many families are still in touch with the students who participated in the program and graduated.

Perhaps even more impressive, the initiative lacks any sort of official organization and funding, Grigg said. Volunteers organize the programming, and ISU and other local colleges and organizations such as churches, as well as the students and families in the program, pitch in to provide support.

Last fall, the International Students' Friendship Program hosted its first public event in two years, a potluck dinner at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Terre Haute. Organizers didn't know how many people to expect, said Zachariah Mathew, associate director of International Programs and Services at ISU.

He expected between 100 and 150 people to attend; he was delightfully surprised when almost 250 people packed the church gymnasium for the potluck dinner and concert.

"So towards halfway through the event, the students were trying to scramble chairs from here and there, and then we ran out of plates, because I bought like 230 or 270, and they were gone!" Mathew exclaimed. "It was amazing."

The program included dinner and several cultural events, including a performance from the Chinese School of the Wabash Valley, Korean School, a Rose-Hulman group and several college students, including ISU graduate student Ghada Alhalasa, performing a Jordanian dance.

"That was great for me, because I participated in a lot of activities there, and at the event, I knew a lot of people from ISU," Alhalasa said. "I have a lot of friends now from that day."

Alhalasa partnered with Grigg, who has hosted many program participants. Grigg sometimes invites others to her house, and they discuss cultures from around the world, said Alhalasa, who would encourage other students to participate in the program.

"It's really nice," she said, "and it really helps you to make a lot of friends, increase your self-confidence and increase your knowledge about different cultures."

The program also introduced Achmad Suyono, an ISU graduate student and Fulbright Scholar from Indonesia, to local resident Paul Cooper. They quickly became friends, which has even extended to their families. Suyono's wife and daughter, who still live in Indonesia, write to Cooper's wife and daughter, who live in the Wabash Valley.

"This brings more personal and intimate engagement that I don't think would exist without the support from the program and from ISU," Suyono said. "Starting from the formal gathering, and it goes on and on until you continue to develop a very personal experience together."

The program slowed down for a couple of years before a major restart last fall, Grigg said. Community volunteers such as her, Rose Bear and Garrett Pendergast complete many of the logistics needed for the program. Since it first started, a few thousand students, faculty, staff and families have participated in the program.

"Today, some students are preoccupied with the internet," Grigg said, "and hopefully this program will provide them with opportunities to socialize with students from other colleges and people in the Wabash Valley community, learn another culture, practice their English and also to get away from being isolated."

Though Mathew did not participate in the program when he was a student at ISU, he befriended people through other activities, and he maintains many of those friendships today. He understands the value of his experience, and he wants international students to develop similar friendships through the program.

"This ultimately becomes your home, and you need to build relationships," Mathew said. "The purpose of this program is to build those relationships, and through those relationships, build harmony and community."

Photo: (ISU/Tony Campbell)
Students from several universities in the Wabash Valley meet with local host families during the fall potluck dinner for the International Friendship program. The program was started more than 20 years ago by Pat Grigg, and introduces international students from Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College to each other and to local residents.

Photo: (Submitted Photo)
Participants at a previous International Friendship Program event at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology perform the Vietnamese bamboo dance. The friendship program introduces international college students with local host families so they can become friends while also teaching each other about cultural traditions.

Photo: (ISU/Tony Campbell)
Indiana State University student Achmad Suyono, center, speaks with another attendee during the International Friendship Program potluck dinner last fall. Suyono, an ISU graduate student from Indonesia, has enjoyed participating in the program.

Contact: Zachariah Mathew, associate director, International Programs and Services, Indiana State University, 812-236-2439 or 

Writer: Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or