Magazine On-line [spring 2013]
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Home away from Home

Friendship Family program helps international and out-of-state students transition into life at Transylvania

By Martha S. Baker

Photo above: Matthew Simmons '14 (left) has been paired with Johan '00 and Aimee Hicks Graham '03 for three years. Playing with their 21-month-old twins Charlie and Noah reminds him of his own siblings back home in Riverside, Calif.

Ajibola Bakare ’15 had never been to the U.S. when he traveled 5,800 miles from his home in Abuja, Nigeria, to enroll at Transylvania.

Matthew Simmons ’14 had never been to Kentucky until he left his home in Riverside, Calif., and traveled 1,800 miles to attend Transylvania.

Despite being far away, both students felt at home when they arrived on campus thanks to the Friendship Family program, which pairs international students and domestic students who come from a long distance with Lexington alumni, faculty, and staff families or with families of current and former Transylvania students. Bakare and Simmons are among 13 students and families currently participating in the program.

“It’s helped me get to know and bond with citizens of this country,” says Bakare about his Friendship Family, Tony ’07 and Sara Hoffman Smith ’07. “I’ve learned what the culture of the U.S. is like, and I have someone I can fall back on if I have a problem or get sick or need to talk with someone. It helped with my transition and made me feel more comfortable living in the U.S.”

The partnership took on a deeper dimension last summer when Tony Smith, who is completing an internal medicine and pediatrics residency at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, arranged for Bakare, who aspires to become a neurosurgeon, to shadow a doctor.

Ajibola Bakare

Ajibola Bakare

“He is having his second year of residency, and I asked him about how that worked,” said Bakare. “He offered to help me find someone to shadow and made the arrangements. I am not interested in pursuing the same kind of medicine as my host dad, but talking with him gave me a better idea of the process after I graduate from Transylvania and how to achieve my goals. It helped me become more confident. I will definitely call on him to help me with medical school applications.”

Simmons, an exercise science major and Spanish minor, relies on his Friendship Family, Johan ’00 and Aimee Hicks Graham ’03, for a place to stay when the residence halls close for holidays and breaks, to take him to and from the airport for trips home, and—for the past three years—a home cooked Thanksgiving meal.

“Matthew doesn’t go home for Thanksgiving, so the first year, he got to eat Thanksgiving dinner with both of our parents,” says Johan Graham. “Now that we have small children (21-month-old twin sons), we don’t travel as much, but Matthew is still with us for Thanksgiving. He’s developed a whole network of friends at Transylvania, but when they leave for breaks, Matthew knows he’s welcome here.”

The Grahams also see themselves as a resource for Simmons as he approaches graduation. “That’s part of being a good alum,” says Johan. “Matthew wants to be a physical therapist, and we know a ton of people who went through Transylvania and are now physical therapists. Transylvania prepares you well for a career, but it never hurts to know people to turn to for advice.”

A growing program

The Friendship Family program started four years ago and was coordinated by Ashley Hinton-Moncer, health and wellness director, and Karen Anderson, coordinator of community service and civic engagement. When Darlene Ogata joined Transylvania as international student advisor last fall, she took the lead. Natasa Mongiardo ’96, director of alumni programs, serves as the liaison with alumni.

Ogata has both a professional and a personal interest in this type of program: she and her husband, a Japanese-American, raised six children that they adopted from other countries in addition to four birth children, and they host a group of international students from Lexington-area colleges at their home each month. She’s excited about Transylvania’s growing emphasis on recruiting international and out-of-state students. “With more of them on campus,” she says, “there’s an ever greater need for this program. We hope to expand it every year.”

Currently, participants are matched in the fall, but Ogata hopes to move that process to the summer so the students and families can communicate by email before the students arrive on campus. “The first term can be difficult, with students dealing with culture shock, a new time zone, language issues, and loneliness. But it’s also very busy, so if a student hasn’t applied for a Friendship Family—or even if they’ve already been matched—it can be hard for them to add anything else to their lives,” she says.

Mongiardo knows that feeling from personal experience. She grew up in Bosnia and says she would have welcomed this kind of program when she was a Transylvania student.

“I was fortunate because I developed early relationships with some admissions counselors and staff members, and I felt like I was welcome at their homes during holidays and breaks, but it would have been nice to get to know other Lexingtonians,” she says. “Some students aren’t as outgoing and find it more difficult to develop those kinds of relationships. The Friendship Family program can fill that gap.”

Ogata points out that the program doesn’t require a tremendous time commitment from a family. “When students apply, they can specify how often they’d like to get together with their Friendship Family. It varies from once a month to once or twice a semester, but we encourage the students and families to call, email, or text each other at least once a month.”

The Grahams haven’t had day-to-day or even month-to-month interactions with Simmons. “Matthew does occasionally need some things that parents would ordinarily do,” says Johan, “and we can be there almost immediately, where it could take his parents three days to get across the country if something happened.”

Ogata emphasizes that participants don’t expect elaborate, expensive outings either. “Taking a walk in the neighborhood or a drive in the country can mean a lot to a student who is not from this area,” she says. “We also encourage the students to invite their Friendship Family to events on campus.”

Qinwen Liu, a first-year student from Mongolia, is an example of how little gestures can make a big difference. Her favorite activity so far has been shopping at an American grocery store and then cooking a Chinese lunch for her Friendship Family: Deana Ison ’95, executive assistant to the president, her husband, Blair Dawson, and their eight-year-old daughter, Morgan.

Scarnie LIu

Qinwen "Scarnie" Liu '16 (second from left), Nanchang, China, and Kaiyu Zhang '14, Dongying, China, spent Thanksgiving with Deana Ison '95 and her family, including stepmother-in-law Jan Dawson.

Liu also enjoyed spending Thanksgiving with the family and attending Morgan’s dance recital. Kentucky Fried Chicken is a popular food chain in Mongolia, so Ison has promised Liu a trip to Corbin, Ky., to eat at the original KFC restaurant. And, they’re planning a movie night at home so that Liu can watch Gone with the Wind, which she read in Mandarin and enjoyed so much that she chose Scarnie—a combination of two of the book’s characters, Scarlett and Melanie—as her American name.

“It’s the day-to-day things that she finds fascinating,” says Ison. “She is anxious to learn about American culture.”

Ison sees hosting Liu as a tremendous learning opportunity for her daughter, who has been enrolled in a Chinese language program since kindergarten. “Morgan is fascinated with the global community. This helps connect what she’s learning at school with real life, especially when she and Scarnie converse in Chinese. It’s an easy way to expose her to someone from another culture without traveling a long distance.”

Benefits to Transylvania

On a larger scale, the Friendship Family program is a big benefit to Transylvania. Ingrid Allen ’89, associate director of admissions and coordinator of international admissions, says it’s a great recruiting tool for prospective students and their parents. Several have said the program was one of the deciding factors in choosing Transylvania.

Increasing alumni involvement is another plus.

“Aimee and I love being involved in campus life,” says Johan Graham. “We really enjoyed our time at Transylvania, and this is a good way for us to know what’s going on today from a student perspective. I came to Transylvania from Indiana, which wasn’t that far away, but I always thought something was needed to make sure people feel welcome on campus. It’s a good way to expand our geographic footprint.”

Ison thinks of the program as another way to welcome people to the Transylvania family. “It’s a true example of what makes this college so special,” she says. “The transition from high school to college is a big step for students whether they’re from Lexington or China. If we can give them a home away from home and extra support and a kitchen to cook their favorite meal from home—or just a sofa to veg out on—it makes their Transylvania experience so much more special. It’s a win-win situation.”

Lexington area alumni can apply to the program at or contact Ogata at or (859) 233-8805. 

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