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Host Friend Program helps international students feel at home

| Madigan Knuth

Shortly after beginning her teaching career at UW-Eau Claire, information systems professor Dr. Jean Pratt and her husband Brendan became part of a unique program that helps international students adjust to life in the United States.

The Host Friend Program is operated by UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Education, and it pairs adults in the community with international students traveling to Eau Claire for the first time.

The host friends welcome the students into their homes when they arrive in Eau Claire, before the students move into a residence hall. The program is a great opportunity for the students to make an immediate connection with a community member who they can stay in touch with during their time at UW-Eau Claire. In turn, the program offers community members the chance to interact with people from other cultures.

Prior to being a host friend, Jean’s international experience was comprised of business conferences around the world. Jean and Brendan also hosted a Russian and a German high school student while the Pratts' daughters were in high school. Those international experiences, along with her interest in one-on-one interactions with students, is what inspired Jean to become a host friend.

Jean, who is also the interim associate dean for the College of Business, is one of many faculty members who have served as host friends. In addition, several community members participate in the Host Friend Program. The Pratts have been host friends for 11 years, and they have hosted a dozen students and created a support system for many of their students’ international friends. Due to her passion for information systems and the STEM field, Jean was interested in hosting STEM students and particularly students from Central and Latin America. Jean says that while she and the students enjoy talking computers, Brendan talks sports and politics with the students so they are exposed to a variety of topics and aspects of American culture during their stay.

Jean’s most memorable students have been Felipe Gallinari and Bruno Merrs. Jean shared a fond memory of the two students. “Throughout the school year, the boys would come to our house to spend the night working on their computers. Before I went to bed I would bring them a plate of brownies and a pot of coffee. The next morning when I went to check on them, I could tell they had both been up all night on their computers, and the coffee and brownies were gone.”

Felipe and Bruno often brought friends over from other Latin American countries to enjoy traditional meals from their home countries. “One of my favorite parts about being a host friend is learning how to cook different recipes with the students and being able to provide them with a taste of home every now and then,” Jean said. She also had a Catholic student from Ecuador who the Pratts picked up for church every Sunday.

The Pratts have stayed in touch with Felipe and Bruno for years, and were even invited to Felipe’s wedding. Unfortunately, Jean could not attend due to her teaching schedule, so she and her husband visited them in Brazil over winterim.

Jean shared that one thing that stood out for her Brazilian student Felipe was that Jean’s neighborhood and house wasn’t surrounded by large fences. Jean later found out when she and Brendan visited Brazil that Felipe’s neighborhood is surrounded by an industrial fence with security attendants. Learning about the differences and similarities among cultures is what creates cultural awareness. That cultural awareness benefits the host families, the students and the community.

One of the reasons Jean likes the Host Friend Program is because it is an individual commitment that is decided upon between the family and the student. It can be as flexible as the student wishes with weekly phone calls or it can be as involved as weekly Sunday dinners.

Apart from the Host Friend Program, Jean is very active in the campus community. While her passion is “helping students reach their ah-ha moments and watch them soar,” she has also taken on several different leadership roles. Most recently Jean agreed to serve as interim associate dean for the College of Business. She also serves on the committee for the College of Business that helps re-integrate students in their studies after having been on academic probation or suspension. In the past, Jean chaired the University Senate Academic Policies Committee, which brings before the University Senate curriculum proposals from all the colleges at UW-Eau Claire.

Photo caption: Dr. Jean Pratt and her husband, Brendan (right), have taken part in the Host Friend Program for the past 11 years. One of the Pratts' students, Felipe Gallinari, and his wife, Beatriz Ribeiro, have remained friends with the Pratts for several years.