UW News

October 30, 2008

‘In good hands’: Foundation for International Understanding Through Students celebrates 60 years of welcoming newcomers

UW News

Imagine you’re on your own, a new student in a foreign land. You know little of the language or local customs. You want to fit into your new home, but it’s all so daunting and new — how do you even start?

But then you are taken in by your local host family. You meet and bond with other newcomers in social settings, and before long you begin to find your way in this new country. But you never forget the ones who helped you get started.

That’s the kind of personal support the UW’s Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, or FIUTS, has been providing since its inception in 1948. Back then there were only 274 international students from 37 countries at the UW. Six decades later, there are more than 4,000 international students on campus from more than 100 different countries.

Now, the organization is taking a proud public bow and celebrating its 60th anniversary with several events Nov. 5-8, including cultural performances and a silent auction.

The goal of FIUTS is to create a community of people, on campus and off, who are committed to international understanding and cross-cultural friendship.

The organization does this through a wide variety of events and services. These include homestays and orientation sessions for new students, friendship gatherings and other social events, classroom and elder visits, pen pal programs, films and the annual CultureFest night of performance and fun. Then there is the weekly Wednesday lunch — the longest-running international gathering at the UW — which welcomes all from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays in 200ABC HUB.

It’s all dedicated to helping students from around the world make themselves at home at the UW and in Seattle.

“The UW can be overwhelming to new students, even from Bellevue, let alone from Beijing — so we try to create a strong and recognizable community within the context of the larger University,” said Era Schrepfer, FIUTS executive director, who herself has had much cross-cultural experience as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“It’s amazing how much information they don’t have when they first come,” she said. “Their needs when they first arrive are very logistical.” FIUTS helps them find housing, navigate public transportation, start bank and cell phone accounts and generally get settled.

And FIUTS alumni tend to stay loyal to the organization, remembering how it helped them when they were new.

Among these is Raj Manhas, former superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools who also served as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seeds of Compassion. He described arriving in Seattle from India on the dark and rainy evening of Sept. 15, 1973 — and wondering what in the world came next.

“I’m at the airport and I don’t know a soul,” Manhas recalled. He decided to sit down and just wait until morning, but a United Airlines employee noticed him and helped him connect with the host family that was waiting for his arrival.

“This was the generosity of the American soul, and I deeply appreciated it then and I appreciate it to this day,” Manhas said.

Manhas also warmly remembered Camp Waskowitz, near North Bend, the camp he and other new students attended for a two-day orientation in his first year. Though that camp is not currently being used by FIUTS, Schrepfer said the camp tradition continues. “Camp is a really important part of International Student Orientation — around 200 new international students attend camp each fall” and get to attend a traditional American campfire as well as hikes and other activities.

Manhas said, “It’s difficult, really, to quantify the reward, the benefit of this kind of work … how much good they did in promoting understanding and friendship.”

Babatunde Aina, now a production supervisor with the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Bellevue, remembered when he arrived from Nigeria in 1977 and was helped by FIUTS.

“You can imagine me, coming straight from Nigeria, it was my first time really traveling out of Africa … it was a completely new environment.”

He stayed a week with his host family and returned to spend his first Thanksgiving at their house. He said he also appreciated the fact that he could go to the FIUTS office any time to ask questions or get advice.

“I tell you, they were kind of like my backbone,” Aina said. He also said he’ll never forget that when his host family came to pick him up, the father tried to help Aina with his luggage. “I said ‘No, you can’t carry that for me!’ In my culture, the young ones do things for the old ones.”

Both of these FIUTS alumni — and many, many others — stay in regular touch with the office. Aina said that any time friends from those days come to town, “We go back to FIUTS and have a reunion.”

Schrepfer said FIUTS is run by only four full-time staffers, so it gets a lot of help from volunteers, many of whom are former students. And it’s far from being a September-only organization; the work of FIUTS continues year-round.

Manhas, one of the organization’s most celebrated alumni, will give the keynote address at the Gala and Silent Auction on Nov. 8, the final event of the 60th anniversary celebration.

He summed up the work of FIUTS, recalling his own experience.

“Can you imagine — anybody from anywhere in the world coming to a new place and how happy you are when somebody says, ‘OK, you are in good hands. We will take care of you.'”

Here are the events of the FIUTS 60th birthday celebration:

CulturalFest Wednesday Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, November 5, HUB Ballroom. Travel the world through country tables presented by UW international students and scholars and enjoy a traditional FIUTS Wednesday Lunch.

Opening reception, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, $20, Museum of History and Industry. Alumni, students and UW and community members will gather for the official kickoff to the events. Remarks will be made by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and Chris Alejano, on behalf of Governor Christine Gregoire.

CulturalFest performances, 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7, $5, Ethnic Cultural Center. CulturalFest, a program of the FIUTS Student Board, features UW’s international students and student groups performing traditional and contemporary music and dance from their home cultures.

Gala and silent auction, 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, $50, Ocean City Chinese Restaurant, 609 S Weller St. The closing gala will feature a Chinese dinner and silent auction to benefit FIUTS programs.

Interested in having an international student over for Thanksgiving? Learn more about FIUTS, its many programs and its 60th birthday online at http://www.fiuts.washington.edu/.