Every Wednesday, Elizabeth Sierra-Arruffatt throws a birthday party at her Lakewood home.
The guest of honor changes each week. As does the flavor of cake.
But the guests are mostly the same — international students from Pierce College who live with her now or did in the past. Sierra-Arruffatt has been a host for two years and invites the students to dinner every Wednesday and throws them a themed birthday party.
With students graduating June 13, this week’s party will be the last until the fall, when a new batch of students will arrive.
“It’s for fun,” Sierra-Arruffatt said of the birthday bashes, “and for each student to feel special.”
She is among about 250 Pierce County residents who open their homes to international students for as long as two years, providing a safe place to live and a close look at American life.
Kim and Tara Allen of Lakewood became a host family for the first time last fall, when they hosted Turkish and Chinese students from Pierce College. Kim Allen said the experience has shown him how people from different cultures often share the same aspirations — such as wanting to succeed and do well.
“I found out that no matter what culture you come from, we all have the same common goal,” he said.
The three Pierce County colleges that have host family programs — Tacoma Community College, Pierce College and Clover Park Technical College — have more than 500 students taking part.
Host family programs are important for students who haven’t been in the United States before, said Annemarie Martin, a housing coordinator at TCC. The families help students get to know the neighborhood, where to go and how to get there, and introduce them to American culture in general.
Students also learn practical skills, such as how to open a bank account, get a driver’s license or make a doctor’s appointment, as well as social skills for dealing with cultural norms, customs and traditions, said Yuko Chartraw, program specialist at Clover Park.
“Living with an American family provides a great opportunity to learn about the U.S. culture and traditions firsthand,” she said. “However, this cultural learning goes both ways — host families also learn from their students about their home countries and culture.”
To be a host for Pierce College students, a family must have its own sources of income so that hosting students is something they want, not need, said George Scheffe, a housing manager at the college.
“That helps hosts treat the students as welcomed guests and incorporate them into the family," he said.
The family is expected to know where the students are and how they’re doing personally and academically. They also must be willing to help students with issues or problems that come up.
At Pierce College, families get $450 a month in rent or $600 a month if meals are included.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for in a host,” Scheffe said, “is people who want to have an enriching experience by having students from another country living with them.”
Students are expected to follow the host’s rules, which can be as simple as taking their shoes off when entering the house or not eating in the bedroom.
“We want the students to have a feeling like they’re part of the family,” said Scheffe, who always asks the family about their work and lifestyle to determine whether they truly have time for students.
One thing usually challenging for students, he said, is being a good
Limitations in speaking English sometimes make the students reluctant to communicate with their hosts. Also some students come from cultures that aren’t as expressive as in the United States, so talking with people they aren’t familiar with can be challenging.
Scheffe said it’s normal for him to get complaints from a family about their students and vice versa. Problems can be as small as a student who found two dead bugs in her room to a family who complained about their student never coming home.
It can also be a big enough issue — such as a student who objected to the host throwing a party with alcohol — for Scheffe to do an “emergency removal” of the student.
“There can be a lot of ‘drama’, ” he said. “Because you have a lot of different people involved, different cultures, different languages.”
The bottom line, Scheffe said, is to get the students “to grow in the heart” as well as in their education.
This insight, he said, came from being an international student himself. Scheffe studied in Japan for 3½ months and continued living there for 3½ years. Nine months of the time there, he lived with a host family.
He found himself “grow in the heart” to the point he’s been part of a host family for four years.
Hermosa Tang, a 20-year-old from Hong Kong, could live with friends in an apartment. But she said she prefers living with a host family because it’s helped her improve her English and better understand American culture.
For Dongsam Shin, 25, one surprising aspect of that culture involves shoes. In his home country of South Korea, “people take their shoes off at home,” he said, “but here, people wear their shoes inside.”
The way strangers interact with each other also surprises him. Shin, who’s been in the United States for only two months, said he’s not used to saying hello to people in the streets, but everybody here greets others whether they know them or not.
Berkan Koroglu, 20, of Turkey, has been attending Pierce College and living with a host family for about six months. Before that he vacationed in the United States five times and said he enjoys talking to new people and making new friends.
The friendly people in Washington state, he said, leave him with a good impression.
“Compared to the other states I’ve been to, the people in Washington are very open, and I love them for that,” Koroglu said.
However, his dealings with his host family aren’t always as pleasant. There’s been no serious trouble, he noted, but added he doesn’t like being told what to do. He already would have moved to an apartment, he said, if it wasn’t so much trouble packing all his things.
Nestor and Glenda Dulce have had a better experience. The Lakewood couple learned about hosting international students from friends.
“We asked them how is it, hosting students,” Nestor Dulce said. “They said it’s fun. You meet different cultures.”
He and his wife decided to be hosts after his daughters left home for college.
“We have three rooms open, and nobody stays here,” he said. “So we thought, why not trying hosting?”
The Dulces, both of whom were born in the Philippines, said the experience helped change their perceptions. Their first student was from Vietnam, and Nestor Dulce feared she would resent coming to a country that had waged war on her homeland.
“Before knowing a Vietnamese, I thought they would hate America,” he said. “But now the perspective has changed because our Vietnamese student and we have become so close.”
That can take some doing.
The Dulces had a shy student who locked herself in her room and would not join them for dinner. To overcome the separation, the Dulces made a point of starting conversations with her and did their best to keep communicating with her.
Even after students move out, it’s not uncommon for them and their former hosts to remain friends, often via Facebook or email. Glenda Dulce, for one, likes to go out with her past students to take photos together or watch movies.
It doesn’t require a long stay to build a strong relationship between the hosts and the students.
Sierra-Arruffatt said she had a student who stayed with her for just 23 days, but they have become close. They send each other Facebook updates even though the student has moved back to Spain.
Some students move out and live locally because they’ve graduated or reached legal age and are allowed to live independently. Visits to their past host families can help keep friendships alive.
At Sierra-Arruffatt’s house, that means the Wednesday dinners at which former students can enjoy a meal with her and the three students who live at the house now.
The first reunion dinner came about when two of Sierra-Arruffatt’s former students got their own apartment on a Saturday and visited her the next Wednesday to say hello.
“We told them, ‘Well, you’re always welcome here, so come back on Wednesday nights,’ ” said Steve Eason, a long-time friend of Sierra-Arruffatt’s who often drops by for the parties. “And then everybody started to bring in their friends, and Wednesday night dinner went from six people to 16 people!”
Among other things, the dinners have helped Sierra-Arruffatt and her students learn about foods from different cultures. Sierra-Arruffatt said her meals have changed since she’s been a host. Because most of the students she’s hosted are from Asian countries, she’s learned a
lot about Asian food from going shopping with them and having them
show her what they like.
“I didn’t know how to cook Asian style before,” she said. “I was scared to try, because they seem to put a lot of ingredients together that I wouldn’t have thought to put.”
After dinner each Wednesday, the group chooses whose birthday will be celebrated next. That person can request his or her favorite birthday cake, and Sierra-Arruffatt bakes it.
The idea for the birthday parties came up when one of the students had a real birthday and Sierra-Arruffatt served a cake at dinner, Eason said.
“Then Elizabeth decided that we should have a cake every week,” he said, laughing, “so it had to be somebody’s birthday — whether real or not.”