The transition to college can be daunting—even more so when attending college means introduction to a whole new country.
At Lawrence University, the Friendship Family Program helps international students transition to life in Appleton. The program pairs the student with a local family that can provide the student with a familial environment, even if they’re thousands of miles from home.
The Office of International Student Services holds events for local families and their students. In addition to these picnics, potlucks, and game nights, the host families and students connect as much as they want. Partnered families can give international students a place to have a home-cooked meal, a family to spend the holidays with, or just someone to help with groceries.
Jill and Paul Wilke of Appleton have been part of the Friendship Family Program since 2002, and they’re always willing to open their home to new students.
“We say, ‘Hey, we’re going to carve pumpkins this weekend; do you and some friends want to come and carve pumpkins?’” Jill Wilke said. “We’ve done Thanksgiving dinners for kids who’ve never had turkey before. And we meet them where they’re at. We’ve had kids in sports, choir classes, theater, cabarets.”
The outreach has even included trips to Lambeau Field.
“We’ve taken a couple students to Packers games so they could experience that,” Paul Wilke said.
Senior Charlotte Ho, a biochemistry and biology double major, arrived at Lawrence from Vietnam in 2021. For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from returning home during breaks. The Wilkes provided her with a home away from home while she settled into campus life during a uniquely difficult time.
“I was very lost,” Ho said. “I didn’t have the chance to go back home, so they were like my family here to help me cope with homesickness.”
The Wilkes recall connecting with Ho even when they couldn’t be together in person during the pandemic.
“They’re always there to get me medicine, food, and make sure I get better,” Ho said. “It was like my actual parents, but in the U.S.”
Lawrence has 160 international students from 40 different countries during the 2023-24 academic year.
Lacy Frewerd, Lawrence's director of international student services, is excited to see the Friendship Family Program grow after it was scaled back during the pandemic. She encourages area families to get involved.
"We're at the cusp of what it's going to be," Frewerd said. "We have more students wanting to participate than families involved, and that's why we'd love to see more families apply."
The Wilkes have hosted students from Belarus, Brazil, Germany, India, Jamaica, Japan, Palestine, Russia, Sweden, and Vietnam—many of whom they’re still connected with—and they have nothing but praise for the Friendship Family Program.
“Our experience has been really positive all the way through,” Paul Wilke said. “It’s nice for the students, but we get a lot more out of it than the students, I think.”
Ho and the Wilkes have gone apple-picking, held game nights, and had dinners where they’ve shared Vietnamese desserts and cheese curds. The Wilkes love the opportunities to welcome new students into their family and to enjoy learning about the cultures their students bring with them.
“It’s just fun,” Jill Wilke said. “It’s just another addition to the family. I say to the students, ‘Once a Wilke, always a Wilke.”
Ho said she encourages other international students to connect with families through the program.
“I’ve only had great experiences with them,” she said. “I’m coming from the other half of the world, and they helped me to learn the country here, get used to the food, the weather, the people. … They are always there.”
Frewerd said her office is excited to help make more of those connections in the Appleton community.
"Our students are wonderful and can provide an opportunity to really get a great cultural exchange that you can't get in other ways," Frewerd said. "It's an opportunity to learn from each other."