VALPARAISO | As an international student at Valparaiso University in the early 1990s, Charles Nathan remembers spending Thanksgiving in a nearly empty dormitory.
Thousands of miles away from his home in India, Nathan recalls feeling lonely, especially when other students were able to go home and spend holidays with their families.
To help other international students at VU, Nathan and Greg Carter, a pastor at Liberty Bible Church in Chesterton, began a program called Friendship Families in 2000.
Modeled after the Friendship Families program in North Carolina, it matches students with Christian families with the goal of helping them adjust to life in the United States.
“The students are eager to connect,” Nathan said. “They want to know what it's like to live in America, and we want to share that with them and learn from them as well.”
Families are encouraged to meet with their students at least once a month, and invite them to share in what the family does in their regular lives.
It could include having a meal together, attending a sporting, musical or other event, going shopping, taking a trip to a Chicago museum or attending church.
“The families don't have to plan a bunch of extra stuff, just take the students along to what they're already doing,” said Nathan's wife, Sue.
With the number of international students at VU growing, the program is seeking to add more churches and families.
In 2000, there were about 25 students and the same number of families. Today, there are 41 families and 111 students, who hail from India, Pakistan, China, Burma, Japan, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, Uzbekistan, Germany, South Africa, Nigeria and Jamaica.
Since the program's inception, more than 75 families have participated, and the students have come from many more countries.
Participating churches include Liberty Bible, Valparaiso Mennonite, Good Shepherd Presbyterian, Hopewell Mennonite, Open Door Fellowship, Washington Evangelical Free, Family Bible and Valparaiso Nazarene Church.
Valparaiso residents Pat Rhew and Lucy Hrivnak are members of Valparaiso Nazarene and Good Shepherd, respectively. They are matched with students from China and India this year.
“We're all parents, and we would want a family to reach out to our children if they were away from home,” Rhew said.
Before classes begin each fall, a welcome party is held at VU so students and families can mix. It is often there that students and families make a connection and request they be matched together.
Other group events include a hayride in the fall and square dance in the spring.
For Charles Nathan, it's all about showing Christian love to students who are far from home.
“We just want to be their family while they're here,” he said.