For Donna and Ralph Harwood, the global community is a small world. Though the married couple were both raised in South Carolina and have lived in the town of Elon for over 40 years, they have friends from all over the world — including international students at Elon University.
The Harwoods lead Local Friends, a community-based program for international students at Elon. Along with the Global Education Center and international student ambassadors at Elon University, they hold monthly events to bring Elon’s international community together.
“It’s been enlightening for us,” Ralph said. “We’ve done some international travel, but you don’t meet people and get to know them personally like that, and hear personal stories and establish lifelong friendships.”
Senior and international student ambassador Howard Chi, originally from Taiwan and raised in Chile, said conversely, the Americans he’s met through the Local Friends program have taught him about American traditions and made Elon feel a little more like home.
During winter break, Chi stayed on campus while most students returned home. Chi said Donna invited him and a few other international students to have a Christmas dinner at her house. He said that dinner is his favorite memory that has come from the program.
“You can get really lonely sometimes,” Chi said. “During the holiday season, you don’t have any friends, you have no car — you have no mobility. So we definitely got a lot of support from them.”
Chi said although people can sometimes lump all international students together, events hosted by Local Friends celebrate each student’s unique experiences. International students at Elon range from Americans who were living abroad to students who had never left their home countries before coming to college.
“They’re not supposed to be grouped into one group and assume they have all the same characteristics,” Chi said. “I think that’s the fun part, that you will always come in with an open mind to hear about what makes it really unique.”
Chi said he has experienced events with Local Friends in two ways: first as an attendee and later as an event planner.
“A lot of times, we’ll have tiny games, sometimes we’ll have bingo, sometimes we’ll pass around papers, and we write something about ourselves, and we’ll exchange them with each other,” Chi said. “Then we’ll find things that we can comment about each other and just have conversations from there.”
Ralph said since the international student ambassadors took over most of the event planning a few years ago, they’ve done a great job of coming up with themes and games to get students to open up at events. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Local Friends has had a lower turnout at its events.
Last academic year, the program had to cancel events or host them virtually. Though in-person meetings returned this year, Local Friends still saw fewer attendees than in previous years. But Donna said they continue to put on events for those who are committed to the program.
“We were a little discouraged because there were so few people, so few students coming in this year,” Donna said. “But they said, ‘Please don’t stop, please never stop.’ So it was good to know that it was really — and we’ve always felt like it was — been appreciated.”
Though the group was initially founded through connections within a church community, Ralph said the program is strictly secular, and they make sure all local volunteers know that.
“We don’t want anyone to come in that has ulterior motives,” Ralph said. “When we recruit someone, normally we send something, and welcome them and say to the volunteers, ‘We do not proselytize.’”
For every student, Ralph said, there are new experiences to share and learn about.
“We hope they learn about our culture. That’s one reason to have them in our home and for us to meet with them,” Ralph said. “We’ve learned so much about their culture, and it’s been so interesting. We vicariously live and travel through the international students.”