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Finding Family Away From Home

Hosting International Students Allows Local Couple to Experience Other Cultures and Create Friendships Over Decades

By Natalie Hammer Noblitt

Imagine arriving in the United States in 1984 from China, speaking very little English and assuming you need a passport to cross state lines. As a young man, Dingwei Yu says he arrived at Princeton to earn his Ph.D. but soon felt alienated in a strange environment and found he had a lot to learn about living in America. A chance meeting with Sheila Siderman and Jerry Palin, a married couple, at an event held by Friends of the Davis International Center Host Program, developed into a friendship that has now lasted three decades and helped Yu solve the many mysteries of American life as a student. It also marked the beginning of the couple’s 30-plus years of volunteering with the host family program, making a difference in the lives of international students as well as in their own lives.

An article in a local newspaper 34 years ago about Princeton’s host family program piqued the couple’s interest as they were settling into a new home near campus. “Jerry and I have a love of travel in common,” says Siderman. “Experiencing other cultures through meeting these students and helping welcome them to Princeton seemed like a great way to be involved in the community.” Now retired from educational publishing, Siderman serves as president of the board of trustees of the Friends of Davis International Center, which is an all-volunteer group that collaborates with Princeton’s Davis International Center. She and Palin, who as part of his career worked for 12 years at Princeton in the Auditory Research Laboratory, continue to host new students each year.

Yu attended one of the weekly lunches at the center in hopes of making contact with a host family who could help him get acclimated to American life. He met Siderman at the event. “I told him we were new to the program, but we were excited to get started,” Siderman says. Yu says he remembers her at the gathering, and was struck by her kindness and patience. “We started a long journey that day,” he says. “We’ve never really disconnected.”

The students participating in the program don’t live with their hosts, but instead consider them their “American aunt and uncle,” Siderman explains.

“The host program provides an opportunity for Princeton-area residents to contribute and also to learn about other cultures,” says Hanna Hand, chair of the program and volunteer liaison to the Davis International Center. “Families provide friendships and at the same time exchange customs, cultures and ideas. Each year we match about 65 international students and scholars and their families with local residents. In addition to Siderman and Palin being long-time host families, there are other families who have also hosted students and scholars for many years.”

Although the couple is not exactly sure how many students they have hosted in the almost 30 years they’ve participated in the program, they host at least one per year, but sometimes two or three and even as many as six.

Among the many students who’ve come to know the couple as a host family is Vu Quang Minh ’95, who arrived on campus in the fall of 1993 to begin a Master of Public Affairs under the Fulbright scholarship program.

“I benefited immensely from the international host family program,” says Minh, who now works as an assistant minister, director-general, in the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Minh says his host family helped him feel less lonely in an unfamiliar environment. “I believe all host families are caring and kind to their adopted students, but I am also convinced I was among the luckiest ones to have been given Sheila and Jerry,” he says. “They have a genuine interest in helping international students, in getting to know different cultures, and in showing students the best that America has to offer.”

At a time when his own family wasn’t allowed to visit the United States, Minh says the friendship was especially important. And very much like a typical American college student, he says he was also happy to be invited for meals. “Sheila and Jerry often took me to their cozy house, fed me and gave me a big box of food to take back to my room,” he says. “During holidays, they not only invited me to parties at their home, but also my roommates who were also international students.”

The couple say they have also been able to get to know many students’ families during graduation, when loved ones are first able to visit, and sometimes via Skype. “One mother of a student from South Africa sent us an email asking if we could help celebrate her son’s 21st birthday since she couldn’t be there,” Siderman says. “So we arranged a surprise dinner at an Indian restaurant, and she was so pleased that he had a great time.”

The couple has even reached the point that a new generation of students follow in their parents’ footsteps. A student they are hosting from India is the daughter of a student they hosted more than 20 years ago.

Traveling abroad to visit their former students has also become part of the cultural exchange long after the students leave Princeton.

“I was also lucky that our friendship did not end when I graduated and left for Hanoi in 1995,” Minh says. “We have kept in touch and my whole family has gotten to know Sheila and Jerry.”

“We’ll keep hosting students as long as they still want to come spend time with us,” Siderman says. Palin agrees, adding, “We feel that we’ve gotten a lot more out of it than they have.”