Fort Lewis College Professional Associates’ host family program, which connects students from abroad with families who will support students through their time at FLC, took a group of the students on a train ride through Cascade Canyon on Saturday.
Tickets for the train ride were provided free to the students and host families by Al Harper, CEO of D&SNG.
Students joined their host families aboard the train to marvel at the natural beauty of Cascade Canyon in an approximately five-hour ride out and back. Foreign exchange students don’t make up a large portion of FLC’s student body, but many of the students who rode the train Saturday had traveled to Durango from other countries to study at the college.
Debby Malcolm, an FLC Professional Associate and host, said the host family program helps students who traveled domestically or crossed borders, but it’s especially helpful for foreign exchange students.
“If we did only one thing, for a foreign student in particular, we would pick them up at the airport,” Malcolm said. “Because they come in so darn tired and they’ve got no sheets and no towels (in their college dormitories).”
She said students unfamiliar with Durango might not even know how to get to town from the airport.
Students join the host family program for support academically, emotionally and logistically. Host families can help students overcome problems with classwork and relationships, or just how to get around town.
“They (the students) join so they can have somewhere to go on Thanksgiving or they have a family here that keeps their stuff over the summer when they (the student) go home,” Malcolm said.
Chuck Carson, president of FLC Professional Associates, said he calls the associates the college’s “academic booster club.”
“Our job is to work maybe one-on-one with students, maybe in larger groups, to help them in their education, but also give them skills that will bridge that education into real life,” he said.
Carson has hosted about 25 students since he joined FLC Professional Associates almost 20 years ago. He said he is still in touch with at least half of the students he has hosted.
“We’re invited to weddings, we get birth announcements, they come to town, we have dinner,” he said.
The host family program is all about forming connections, he said. Students get a safe place to have a home-cooked meal, decorate Christmas cookies or carve pumpkins, if they’d like – the kinds of things they might have done at home but can’t do in a college dorm, he said.
Cres Fleming, another FLC Professional Associate and host, and Carson agreed that students who sign up for the program benefit from it, but the host families might benefit even more.
“It has been great,” Fleming said. “The way my wife and I look at it, we (host) students to keep us young rather than to make us old. We actually get more out of it than, I think, the students do.”
He said it’s “extraordinarily enjoyable” to see a student through to graduation – particularly if they were struggling at the beginning of their college career. He said it’s comparable to having one’s own kids graduate.
Carson said the host families serve as anchors to their students. He recalled one student he hosted who started college with a true party mindset. She was in detox every couple of weeks because the parental reins were gone and it was time to party, Carson said. Now, she’s married with children and on what Carson said is a successful path.
“Her freshman year, she was bored one weekend so we did that parade of homes with her,” he said. “Took her around and looked at houses. That’s a subtle (way) to say, ‘You’ve got a future, young lady.’”
Fleming said from 2005 to 2008, student turnover at FLC was “incredible.” He said the college’s retention has greatly improved, but then, it was great to have a student return for their second year and tell Fleming he is one of the reasons they stuck through it.
“The student benefits,” Carson said. “I really believe that. We benefit, perhaps more than the students. The college benefits – and that’s why Professional Associates took it on. It’s to bring that college community thing together and to help make the college successful.”
Janice Sheftel, who’s been a professional associate for about three years, is the host of Shiori Tsuda. Tsuda, a junior at FLC, traveled to study in Durango through the foreign exchange program offered by her university in Tokyo. She is studying psychology.
Tsuda said the program has been helpful for her. She’s enjoying Durango and appreciates the chance to practice her English, which she’s studied since junior high school but hasn’t practiced aloud until she arrived in town in August.
She said students and professors at the college are kind to her – people will compliment her hair or shoes, which never happens back in Japan, she said. She likes the diversity of people and cultures in the United States as well. Tsuda said she has taken an interest in Native American culture.
Tsuda recently traveled to Los Angeles, her first solo trip across the country, she said. She was impressed with how the landscapes there are different from Durango’s. In two weeks, she’ll be traveling again to Chicago, where she’ll present a paper she’s been working on about the effects of inflation on the food industry.
“People volunteer in all kinds of ways (for FLC Professional Associates),” Sheftel said. “They volunteer to help students with interviews, they volunteer to help students with hosting families. They volunteer to hear from faculty members about various programs at the college so they can help. They contribute to scholarships at the college.”