Mikki and Todd Sandin spent the cool, rainy evening of Oct. 8 discussing authentic Chinese teas and Husker football over chicken noodle soup.
Three international students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln joined the Sandins for soup and conversation; Jason Yang, a freshman English as a second language student from China, Salim Bait Said, a sophomore interior design major from Oman and Japhet Dushimeyesu, a freshman integrated science major from Rwanda.
After dinner, the Sandins gave the students a closer look into American culture with a tour of their house.
This is the Sandins’ fifth time hosting international students through Dinner in a Nebraska Home, a program that invites international students to UNL faculty homes to share a meal.
Teresa Lostroh, assistant director of New Student Enrollment, said UNL staff and administrators piloted Dinner in a Nebraska Home in spring 2015 under the name Dinner with an American Family, after they realized very few international students visited a personal home in the United States.
The program officially launched campuswide in spring 2016. The staff and administration later changed the name to Dinner in a Nebraska Home to make the program more inclusive.
“We realized that not all hosts have families and are not American,” Lostroh said.
Students and hosts attend receptions and are paired up. A host will typically have two or three students.
Lostroh said that the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s a very popular program,” she said. “This semester, we have 52 hosts and 166 students with 32 countries represented.”
Dushimeyesu, who has lived in the United States since the beginning of the fall semester, said he participated in Dinner in a Nebraska Home because he thought it would be useful for him to learn more about American culture.
“I plan on staying in the United States for four more years, so it would be good for me [to] know more about American life,” he said.
Yang said that his favorite part about the program was the food and meeting Mikki.
“[Mikki Sandin] is very enthusiastic,” he said. “I learned more about the American life through the dinner alone.”
Like Dushimeyesu, Yang has lived in the United States for two months. He said life in America is drastically different from life in China.
“There’s more freedom in America than in my country,” he said. “People [in America] seem to enjoy life, and there’s a lot more you can do here.”
Lostroh said the purpose of the program goes beyond just a meal in a private Nebraska home.
“We want to build connections between our students and university employees and to provide an informal platform for reciprocal cultural exchange,” she said. “The students learn about what life is really like [in Nebraska], and the hosts learn about the students’ cultures and experiences.”
Sandin said her bond with the international students she’s hosted didn’t end after the reception and dinner.
“The first time I participated, I hosted a few Saudi Arabian students and I enjoyed having my time with them,” she said. “I’ve developed a relationship with them and they come over to my house whenever they can.”
Sandin said putting herself in the place of an international student motivates her to continue to participate in the program.
“If I was visiting a different country, I would enjoy being in a home of someone from that country,” she said. “I want to do the same for international students who come here. It’s really important for me to open up not only my home, but also my life and interests.”
Rachel Ayalon, who works in the Office of Global Strategies, hosted six students from China, Malaysia, India and Rwanda with Nebraska State Sen. Adam Morfeld.
Ayalon said she decided to be a host because she wanted to get to know the international students she works with in an informal setting.
“The environment allows students to be more comfortable and for us to have good discussions,” she said. “It’s a nice time for [the students and me] to talk outside of an academic setting.”
Lostroh said she hopes that through this program, international students know they are cared for and valued.
“We want to make it clear to international students that they matter and have a home here,” she said. “We know that when students feel connected to the university and feel that someone cares about them, they are more likely to be retained and persist to graduation.”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 edition of The DN.