• Students participating in the MIT Hosts to International Students program identify their home countries on a globe as MIT staff member Janet Fischer, right, looks on. Since 2002, Fischer has been a host to, from left, Zawadi Lemayian, a freshman from Kenya; Irene Berita Murimi, a junior from Kenya; Smeet Deshmukh, a graduate student from India; and Tendai Chizana, a senior from Zimbabwe.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Host program offers international students home away from home

As coordinator for the MIT Hosts to International Students (HISP) program, Janka Moss now gets to see the other side of a program with which she had some personal experience.

Close to 15 years ago, Moss and her then-husband arrived at MIT. He was here as a graduate student, but the transition from Slovakia was difficult for them both. The two enrolled in HISP, which smoothed their transition considerably, Moss said.

Moss was matched with Deborah Levey, a staff member in civil and environmental engineering, and her family. Levey invited Moss to her house, shared stories, customs and even cooking tips with Moss to help her acclimate to life in the United States.

"She is amazing," said Moss of Levey. "I can always count on her."

These are the relationships HISP was designed to cultivate when it started in 1960, Moss said. The program is open to any one of the nearly 400 international students who come to MIT each year, many of whom have never even visited the United States.

Some host families take multiple students at a time, inviting them into their homes, having them over for dinners, movies and conversation. "Many students feel homesick when they first arrive," said Moss. "It really just makes their life a little easier."

The program is very individual, said Levey, who has had many host students in the 20 years she has been involved with the program. "Some students need more than others."

Over the years, Levey has cultivated many traditions with her students. Each Halloween they carve pumpkins together and each Thanksgiving, they are invited to the Leveys' home.

The students benefit from the exposure to American culture and the homebase they create with their family. But the host families benefit as well, said Levey.

For their family, being part of HISP has been an opportunity to travel without leaving home, said Levey. "I have always been interested in life in other cultures."

Over the years her family has hosted students from India, Romania, Malaysia, Argentina, Taiwan and more. "Their observations constantly remind us how many viewpoints we don't necessarily encounter in the American media," said Levey.

When her host students come to dinner, the conversations cover much ground, from the First Amendment to American cuisine. "One common question is, 'Is dorm food typical of American food?'" Levey said with a laugh.

For Janet Fischer, special assistant in the Office of the Provost, HISP offers an opportunity to form connections she might not otherwise make.

"For me, the program has brought nice friendships and a growing awareness of multicultural issues," said Fischer.

Since she first got involved with the program in 2002, Fischer has played host to four students: one graduate student from India, one undergraduate from Zimbabwe and two undergrads from Kenya.

This year, one of her first students will graduate. "It has been tremendously exciting to watch her," said Fischer. "She has grown in confidence quite a bit."��

They have shared many experiences, including picnics, concerts and cultural events.

One of Fischer's fondest memories is meeting one of her students at Logan Airport and riding the shuttle bus to MIT with a group of new Indian graduate students.

"It was a thrill to experience Boston, Cambridge and MIT for the first time, through their eyes."

Fischer's door has always been open to her host students, who often stop by her office just to say hello or grab lunch. "I try to be as helpful as I can," she said.��

Junior Irene Berita Murimi is one of Fischer's students. "The host program provides an opportunity to explore American culture from a nonacademic perspective," said Murimi. "Leaving campus to visit Janet's community has probably been one of the most important aspects of my international education."

Ideally, all of the roughly 100 families who participate in the program would form such bonds, said Moss, who still remembers what the transition felt like. "I loved the program when I was part of it, and I love it now," said Moss. "It makes life much easier for international students."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 2006 (download PDF).

Topics: Global, Staff, Students, Volunteering, outreach, public service


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