Yuan Wu had taken only one English class when she arrived in Boston from Nanjing, China, so she had trouble understanding her classmates and her professors in the MIT Sloan School of Management. Even as she felt more comfortable with the language, however, she still was aware of differences in how Americans and Chinese express themselves.
“The people I meet here, they are more straightforward than Chinese people. If (Americans) don’t like something or don’t want to go somewhere, they tell you,” she says, adding that Chinese people would instead be more roundabout in expressing their opinions.
Wu grew more comfortable conversing with Americans in part through her participation in the MIT Hosts to International Students Program. As many as 60 international students from about 30 countries participate in the MIT program annually, and are matched with about 80 Boston area families who are alumni, staff, and friends of the Institute. The goal is to give students access to a support system when they are so far from home.
Host families can pick up students at the airport, invite them to dinner, take them shopping,give them birthday parties, or call them before exams, letting them know that while they are far from home, they are not alone. And, as in Wu’s case, they provide an opportunity for international students to practice and improve their English and to open a window into daily American family life. Henry and Juci Cunier of Marblehead, Wu’s host family, have very much involved Wu in their lives and they have all become good friends.
“Without the host program, it would have been more difficult for me to get the chance to know people. I have friends — we talk about studies or life, but we don’t get the chance to know their families,” Wu says.
The Cuniers have been especially helpful to Wu because both Henry and Juci came to the United States from other countries. Henry Cunier, an agent for an international bank, came from Zurich, Switzerland, so he spoke English when he arrived 35 years ago. But Juci, who came from Brazil three years ago, spoke no English. This is one reason she chose to help others.
“We decided to help the students because I saw how difficult it was to adapt to a new culture, a new country. I can understand the fear, the misunderstanding, the discrimination. They came to a very famous school, but beyond the walls of the school, they are like every other immigrant,” says Juci, who now speaks nearly fluent English. Her personal experience creates a strong bond with the students. “They feel comfortable to make mistakes. They know I had problems also.”
The Cuniers, who had no previous ties to MIT, learned of the Hosts to International Students program from a friend who was also a host.
“There’s a need for it. We feel it’s important to help out people from other countries,” Henry says. The couple also enjoys the opportunities to learn about life in other parts of the world. “It’s a wonderful exchange of culture, thoughts, and ideas,” he says.
Wu and the Cuniers first met when the Cuniers included her among the guests for their Thanksgiving dinner last November.
“It was an amazing experience. That was the first Thanksgiving in my life,” Wu says. “They treated me like a member of their family, not as a guest or a stranger.”
The friendship grew even stronger when Wu went to Texas for a few weeks for a summer internship. Her husband, Dong Yin Wu, arrived in Boston just as she left. He spent his first weeks here living with the Cuniers and improving his English. “The most important thing is he’s got more confidence,” Yuan says.
Besides sharing Thanksgiving dinner, at which Wu had the option of using chopsticks to eat turkey, the Cuniers have taken Wu to musical concerts, the beach, and Asian restaurants.
“They help to make my life more colorful. I’m not just a student studying at MIT, eating at MIT, living at MIT. They show me a broader world,” said Wu, who has developed a strong connection with Juci Cunier. “I always call Juci my host sister.”
The Hosts to International Students program has helped Wu and her husband adjust to life in the United States, but it has also given them, and the Cuniers, more. “I’m lucky to find good friends here. I will try my best to keep this friendship,” Yuan says. “We also hope someday Henry and Juci will go to China and we can travel together.”