Two Who Help International Students in Small Ways That Turn Out to Be Very Big

I’m going to brag on a couple friends of mine. Both of them are shining examples of devoted service to the international students who come to our communities. Both of them live in small cities in the Midwest: one in Pittsburg, Kansas, and the other in Joplin, Missouri. And while they are content to serve in quiet ways, each has recently been highlighted in local media.

Helping Students Get Around . . . on Two Wheels

1653027386_4dba5e754a_qFor over three decades, Don Smith—through Campus Christians—has been ministering to the students at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. Throughout that time, more and more of those students have come from other countries.

In fact, today, a significant part of Don’s work is collecting, repairing, and distributing bicycles to the more than 450 international students at PSU. It was this bicycle ministry that caught the attention of The Joplin Globe, which ran a story about him.

Don told The Globe that he got the idea to loan bikes to international students 30 years ago, when he saw a similar program at the University of Missouri. That story means something to me, as I was a student at MU 30 years ago, living at the Christian Campus House, the place where Don got his inspiration. A few years later, I became the campus minister to inernationals at CCH and took over the bike ministry. But Don’s efforts go well beyond anything that I was able to do.

One of the first lessons he learned was how to keep bikes in the program. It was easy to give bicycles out. “But the first year,” Don told The Globe, “not one bike came back. Not one.”

The solution came in two parts: using stronger locks and charging a deposit of $35, which is refunded when the bike is returned. That’s increased the return rate to about 75%.

Since the beginning of July, Don has distributed 200 bikes. And as word has gotten around, American students are taking advantage of the ministry as well.

Word certainly has gotten around, not only about the bikes but about all the work that Don is doing. Two years ago, he received the Ralf J. Thomas Distinguished Service Award from PSU, and last month he and his wife were honored by Ozark Christian College, their alma mater, with the Seth Wilson Outstanding Alumnus Award.

(Andra Bryan Stefanoni, “Have Bike, Will Travel: Campus Minister Provides Wheels to Students,” The Joplin Globe, February 14, 2014)

A Mom to Many

2956042901_4e983192a0_q“Mom.” That’s what scores of international students at Joplin’s Missouri Southern State University call Linda Keifer. For nine years, she and her husband, Jerry, have invited guest from around the world into their home.

“It started with a few, and then they invited their friends,” Linda told The Chart, Missouri Southern’s student newspaper. “This is what God wanted us to do.”

Several students also shared in the article what they liked about being part of the Keifers’ extended “family”:

“It’s family Sunday: to eat, relax, listen to each other, to talk about worries, hopes, dreams and wishes,” said Stephanie Kiessling from Germany. “They are sharing the American tradition and the international students [are] sharing theirs as well.”

And Lei Lei, from China, said, “When I speak to them, I feel like I’m talking to a genuine mother and father. They make me feel appreciated, welcomed, and at home.”

Linda’s ministry came full circle last year when she and Jerry traveled to Asia, becoming the guests and receiving hospitality from the students and their families.

Being part of a family means sharing in the highs and lows. So when Linda was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, the students gathered around the Keifers and comforted them. That comfort has continued as Linda has gone through surgery and receives treatment.

Just a few weeks ago, Jerry told me how much the students’ kindness has meant to them. That’s often the way it is: When we reach out to help others, we often receive as much, if not more, than we give.

(Xiaoyu “Jamie” Wu, “Mom Opens Home to Students,” The Chart, October 31, 2013)

Don and Linda wouldn’t meet a strict definition of “globally famous,” but that doesn’t mean they haven’t gained international fame, at least among those who have been touched by their simple generosity, by those who call them friends . . . and sometimes “Mom” or “Dad.”

[photos: “Bicycle,” by JMC Photos, used under a Creative Commons license; “Door Knob,” by zizzybaloobah, used under a Creative Commons license]


Pitt Pal: Facilitating Friendships with International Students

A student worker shares about International Programs and Services at PSU’s annual Community Activities Fair.

Tucked in the southeast corner of Kansas, in the heart of the United States, is Pittsburg State University. Though it’s far from any international borders, this school with an enrollment of  less than 7,300 has become the educational destination for students from around the globe, with 469 internationals attending from 37 countries in the spring of 2012.

In light of statistics that say more than one third of international students have no close American friends, it is easy for students to arrive in the US feeling out of place and to leave feeling the same way. How does a school like Pitt State leverage Midwest hospitality to make its international population feel at home?

One answer is the Pitt Pal program, which facilitates friendships by pairing international students with American students. I asked the coordinator of Pitt Pal, Brenda Hawkins, to share about the program:

Pitt State had its International Friends program, matching up international students with local families, for many years before starting Pitt Pal. What are some of the added benefits of involving American students, rather than just relying on families?

My first day of work here we went to a regional international education conference and I heard K State talk about their buddy program. Realizing that we didn’t have anything like that I did some research on that type of a mentor program and we decided PSU needed one. At first I thought it would be a great opportunity for a domestic student to serve an international student and help them acclimate to the USA and college life here. We also wanted to encourage domestic students to have a global eye and outreach and knew that this would change their lives as well. Having been overseas myself on many trips, I knew that the hospitality of people we met always impressed me and helped us feel welcome.

The local family opportunity is encouraged to meet at least once a month. I felt like international students could also benefit from more frequent interaction with an American-born student. Since they would have in common being students this would provide an initial platform to build a friendship on. Being on campus and perhaps in the same dorm or classes would lend itself to potentially daily contact.

A recent survey found that 38% of international students have “no strong American friendships.” What do you see as the biggest obstacles to friendships between US and international students, and how does Pitt Pal help to overcome them?

In a nutshell, obstacles to friendships between US and international students are language barriers, cultural differences and misconceptions, stereotypes, and indifference to get out of your comfort zone and learn about another culture. Students don’t always see the value in learning about another culture and the effort that takes.

But I think another obstacle is a structural challenge that most universities face because international students arrive on campus up to a week before domestic students return. The first students they have a chance to meet and befriend are other international students. By the time most of the domestic students return to campus, friendships are formed and they tend to sit with other international students in class. To an American student it may appear that internationals prefer to hang together. Another structural challenge in some universities is that international students are separated from domestic students in their freshman experience classes. While this is necessary because some topics are unique to each group, it might put them on unequal footing for making friends.

Pitt Pal helps overcome these obstacles because it becomes a tool to facilitate cultural interaction and challenges each party to a level of commitment. It helps break the ice for students who may not reach out to form friendships with those who do not have as much in common with them. Finding common ground is key to the beginning of a newly forged relationship between an international and domestic student.  In getting acquainted, students relate to each other by finding similar interests like shopping, sports, food, and exchanging stories about their lives.  But having a desire and flexibility to try and learn new things takes the friendship to another level.

Pitt Pal helps students get to know the individual regardless of their culture and not hide behind generalities. They learn to appreciate the differences and similarities of their cultures and personalities.

Also, for the domestic student it appeals to their sense of helping a student in need.  This generation is strong in their desire to volunteer. I believe finding common ground and having a commitment to this responsibility helps overcome stereotypes and misconceptions. When domestic students return from their study-abroad opportunities, they understand the challenges international students face and are quick to volunteer to help them acclimate.

That’s an interesting thought on international students arriving to campus early. I would think that having students get in touch with each other before the international students get to the States helps with that. Of course, in the end, the relationships that develop are dependent on how much the students invest in them. Can you leave us with a couple examples that show the potential of Pitt Pal friendships?

I have several great examples of Pitt Pal relationships. Some American students have even been able to visit their international friends when they were on study abroad in Korea and Finland, etc. But I think I’ll let two students from China tell about their experiences in their own words, from essays they wrote about Pitt Pal:

This was my first time to meet my Pitt Pal. She was in a green shirt with golden hair and sunshine smile. We introduced ourselves to each other and she said she was American and good at volleyball while I like Ping-Pong, but this didn’t affect us talking about our favorite clothes and bags. We also determined that next week I would cook Chinese dishes for her and she would teach me how to bake.


I am proud that I built a good relationship with my Pitt Pal over the semester. I am so thankful for her keeping company with me during the fall break, when everyone flew to other places to have an enjoyable holiday except me. Even though the dorm on that day was very cold, I felt warm with my Pitt Pal and not lonely any more.

[photo: “DSC_0018,” by Michael Fienen, used under a Creative Commons license]