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International student presence grows at ECC with homestay program

International student English major Rong Rong during an English class ElgCommunity College.  Rong from Chinis here as part homestay

International student and English major Rong Rong, during an English class at Elgin Community College. Rong, from China, is here as part of the homestay program. November 15, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 20, 2012 6:10AM

ELGIN — Rong Rong, 21, and Xiaochen Wang, 20, aren’t much different from their peers at Elgin Community College.

They waited in line for two hours for rides during Fright Fest last month at Six Flags in Gurnee. They adore sweets and still are learning how to cook. They rely on their new friends for advice on clothes and makeup.

They really love to shop.

But at the end of the semester, Rong and Wang — the first students in the International Student Homestay Program of Elgin Community College — will return home to Shanxi Normal University in Linfen, Shanxi Province, China.

The brand-new homestay program comes as figures out last week showed international enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities grew nearly 6 percent last year.

That was driven by a 23 percent increase in students visiting from China, according to Open Doors 2012, a report by the Institute of International Education. That comes even as total enrollment at colleges and universities was leveling out, it said.

“Before I came here, the United States is a dream for most Chinese people. It is impossible to be here,” Rong said.

“I feel lucky to have this opportunity to be an exchange student here.”

The homestay program at ECC gives any full-time international student with an F-1 visa the opportunity to live for a semester in an American home as a member of the family, according to its website.

It also gives Elgin-area residents the opportunity to host an international student and learn about a new culture. The goal is to build “bridges of cultural appreciation,” the site said.

First participants

Rong and Wang said they learned about the program from their university, one of several Chinese schools with which Elgin Community College has partnerships. Judson University and Einstein Academy in Elgin also have signed agreements with schools in China. And Elgin School District U46 launched its first Mandarin Chinese program this school year at the World Languages Academy at Streamwood High School after Superintendent Jose Torres traveled to that country.

Living with a host family means that in addition to the language, students learn more “about American people, their lifestyle and eating habits,” Rong said.

She has learned American culture values individualism, something very different from Chinese culture: “You should be independent. Even if you’re a girl, you should be independent, too.”

And she said she’s enjoyed that freedom, especially in the U.S. education system, making choices and studying the subjects she is interested in, away from pressure from her parents and required courses at Shanxi Normal University, where she is studying education.

Meantime, Wang has discovered an interest in business, a subject she previously had pursued as a means to learn English, she said.

For Elizabeth Reyes, director of the Intensive English Program at ECC and the first “host mom” in its homestay program, inviting international students into her Campton Hills home was “a natural,” she said.

“It feels like it’s such a natural part of life — to share what you have,” Reyes said.

Her father often traveled through O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and would bring home anybody who “looked lonely or lost,” the director said. That included a Russian couple; others from China, Vietnam, Somalia, Cambodia and Japan; and an ambassador from Tibet who had gotten on the wrong plane. The family even was vegan for a year while hosting a man from India whose Hindu beliefs kept him from eating meat, she said.

Plus, Reyes said, “It’s always fun to see something so mundane be so exciting. I sort of dread Thanksgiving and cooking, but everybody else is so excited.”


The increase in international students at public colleges and universities such as ECC also comes as those schools have been hit hard by state funding cuts.

Those institutions “really are starting to realize the tuition from international students makes it possible for them to continue offering scholarships and financial aid to domestic students,” said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor at the Institute of International Education.

Nationally, 765,000 foreign students were on U.S. campuses last year. Most (158,000) were from China, followed by India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Altogether, the Department of Commerce calculates those students contribute $22.7 billion to the economy, and many stay after graduation.

At ECC, there now are 24 to 27 international students, according to homestay coordinator Natalie Escobar. And, she said, that “does help keep the costs down a little bit for other students because the students that are here on visa — they pay full tuition.”

Meantime, Blumenthal said, international students are moving beyond the country’s most famous schools and into state schools, community colleges and liberal arts colleges. That’s important, she said, because, “They need to know that America’s as diverse as we know it is.”

And Reyes said ECC is hoping to send some of its students to take part in a similar program next year at Shanxi Normal University, an idea that excited Rong. The homestay students fielded questions from classmates interested in studying abroad last week during International Week at the community college, they said.

“We hope to see the ECC students at our school,” Rong said, “We will help them.”


On Friday, Reyes, Rong and Wang tossed the molding jack-o’-lantern they had carved for Halloween into a field near their house for the squirrels, and Rong raved about a party and the red cake Reyes had baked for her birthday. Usually on her birthday, she eats dinner with her parents — noodles, because “long noodles mean (you) live longer.”

Wang recounted watching the presidential debates and her host mom knocking on her bedroom door late on election night to let her know President Barack Obama had won a second term.

Now the students are looking forward to their first Thanksgiving.

“Before we came here, we learned a little about that. We knew it was celebrated and Black Friday,” Wang said.

She since has learned it is a time when families gather together to celebrate, she said. They eat turkey and sweet potatoes.

But that doesn’t mean the students are any less excited about Black Friday: “We have a long list,” Rong said.

The Associated Press
contributed to this report.

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