June 23, 2022 at 4:45pm
Alyse Knust

Big Blue host families share the journey of Millikin international students

In 2019, on a whim, I signed up to be a friendship family for one of Millikin University’s international students.


That September, the Center for International Education matched my family (me, my husband and our one-year-old son) to two interested students: Binny Tamang from Nepal and Gaelle Kinja from Congo. Both had just arrived in the country for the first time.


Our first visit felt a bit like a blind date, filled with stilted conversation and awkward silences as we started to find common ground. But babies are universal, and we soon fell into easy company laughing at our budding toddler and talking about the family that each of the students left behind when they came to study at Millikin. 


It has been three years since those first meetings, and while a lot of life has happened in the intervening time, Binny and Gaelle (B&G) have become an integral part of our family’s life.


Together, we have celebrated holidays and birthdays, introduced traditions (why do we carve pumpkins?), shared many meals, acquainted them with some of our extended family and attended campus events.


We have taken them to doctor’s appointments, given driving lessons, comforted them after the loss of loved ones and endured pandemic restrictions together. Those pandemic days were especially difficult for our international students as campus went entirely remote, most domestic students vacated campus and all meals had to be taken to go. A bright spot in late 2021 came when they helped us welcome a new baby to our family.


I am in awe of B&G. It is hard to fathom the bravery it takes for any young person to completely uproot themselves from everything and everyone they know for an opportunity to study at a university in the United States. Most, including our two, will go the entire four years of college without once going back to their home country or seeing their families in person.


That is why, when I tell people we are a host family and they inevitably say, “Oh, how lucky for those students to have you,” I correct them. We are lucky to have them. To witness their courage and growth, and celebrate their successes. They have made our family richer, and we are honored to have played a small role in their lives while they attend the Big Blue.


Binny graduated in May (yay!), and soon will be moving across the country to attend graduate school. Thank goodness we have one more year with Gaelle before she, too, becomes an alumna and moves on. Our family will miss them, but I am comforted by the fact that we will remain in touch. And, of course, the start of each academic year will bring a new incoming class of international students seeking local friendship. At our house, we are more than happy to oblige.