VALPARAISO | When you are a stranger in a strange land, it's good to have someone to help you acclimate to your new surroundings and culture, and sometimes a turkey dinner with all the fixings is a part of that.
About 70 Valparaiso University students from China, Ecuador, India and several other countries got a taste of an American Thanksgiving last weekend as part of the Lumenus program that is partnering with the university to help the young people succeed at the challenging task of studying in a foreign country.
"There is a deep need in higher education to prepare students arriving in the United States to succeed," Lumenus CEO Eric Froelich said. "There's been a huge influx of foreign students that began in 2007 driven by the Chinese economy and the rising affluence of the upper class."
China has a shortage of college space, and many of those wanting a degree wind up in the U.S. Froelich said the U.S. provides a good advantage in the international marketplace for them and the universities like having them, but many lack the infrastructure to help the students adapt and thrive, even though they usually are good students.
The language and culture differences are the big problem, and Lumenus was formed about 14 months ago to help the many foreign students coming to VU. But Lumenus wanted to do more than just teach them English and the joy of American cheeseburgers and pizza.
"We wanted to provide them with the skills to be successful in their lives," he said.
The organizers, which include about a dozen local shareholders such as Lumenus board members Mayor Jon Costas, developer Harley Snyder and businessman Chuck Williams, put together 14 competencies the students would need to learn and added concepts from Stephen Covey's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" as the framework for helping the students.
It starts with learning English and developing personal and time management skills in addition to learning tolerance for other cultures. It also includes such basics as learning how to shop for necessities at local stores, opening a checking account and riding the V-Line buses.
Tutors work with the students several hours a day on the Lumenus curriculum, which is part of their university studies. Students are in the program for up to a year at a cost of $42,000 for the whole year. They live in the condominiums above the Lumenus offices on University Drive under the eyes of a host family.
City Engineering Director Tim Burkman and his wife Jessica serve as the host family. The couple and their children live among the students and provide parental guidance, a sympathetic ear or whatever the students need. The Burkmans arranged for the turkey dinner, which was provided by Semento's Napoli Cafe.
"We thought we could handle it, but almost every kid signed up," Burkman said. "My wife and daughters did the placemats with drawings of turkeys and a history of the holiday. We integrate them into the community by connecting them with other families and we plan to bring them downtown for Holly Days and show them the Christmas lights and how we do that.
"We have a passion for internationals, engaging them and making them feel welcome by doing whatever we can to introduce them to the culture," Burkman said. "That's how we gravitated to Lumenus. Our kids can walk up and down the halls and learn greetings in other languages, and the students like seeing our kids. It's an extraordinary experience for us and the children."
"The university's biggest problem with these students is retention," Froelich said. "There's about a three- to six-week window for the kids to get good traction. Otherwise they start failing. They just hit a wall they don't know how to get over. We try to show them a door at the base of the wall."
About 15 percent of VU's enrollment is international students, including a recent influx of Ecuadoran teachers, who are here under a program of their government to learn to be better teachers back home.
"These students could apply at any university, but they fall in love with Valparaiso University," Froelich said. "The culture of VU supports the international students, and that's what made it attractive to me in partnering with them. Community support is critical."
The name Lumenus comes from "lumen," a measure of light, and U.S., which Froelich said is a play on the word "luminous," meaning emitting light. The program is set up as a for-profit company started with private donations. So far, the group has invested about $1 million in launching it and setting up the offices and classrooms.
"We're just figuring the market out," he said. "The average international student pumps about $45,000 into the local economy a year. It's a great job creator and an investment in the community that wasn't there before."
Costas went to China a year ago under the Lumenus sponsorship and said the group hopes to expand to other cities while keeping the headquarters in Valparaiso.
"Valparaiso has more of an international flair than most cities our size," Costas said. "We hope to bring in more students and equip them for success, primarily at VU. These are students who are able to pay for these services, and they bring culture here and they spend money here, so it is positive for the city as a whole."