By Michile Lam
Adopt a Student
The best relationships are the ones you never saw coming. I have no idea who first said that, but it certainly summarizes some of the most fulfilling friendships I’ve enjoyed.
I was fresh out of college in 1992 when I met Graciella, a Jordanian Palestinian newly enlisted in the U.S. Army. When we became friends, it was a perfect and beautiful storm. In conversation, nothing was off limits. We talked about family, love, betrayal, racism, tension among Jews, Arabs and Christians in the Middle East, and did Thomas Jefferson father children with Sally Hemmings? and who was Jesus? We stayed up into the wee hours of the morning and talked about her homeland and the family she missed.
During that period, Graciella gave her life to the Lord and trusted in Him for eternal life. Those months will always be remembered as some of the most thrilling chapters in my life. Through the years, I would teach my share of Middle Eastern women how to drive a car; I would learn to cook food that smelled like a Moroccan bazaar; and I would tread into the great unknown of unexpected friendships.
Fast forward roughly 25 years: I find myself living in Mississippi as the mother of four kids (two of which are in college), fumbling my way back into the workforce after a 20-year absence and wondering, “When did I stop being courageous in my friendships?” I decide 2017 is my year to do what I have been saying I was going to do for the last 14 years: sign up to be a host friend to a Mississippi College international student. I am glad I did.
I am in Friendship 101 again hanging out with Hind, a Muslim Saudi student studying interior design. Initially I was cautious and followed her lead – but I have to say, that first meeting was electrifying as she probed me for opinions about raising children in America, head coverings, modest dress, fasting and faith.
I didn’t see the faith part coming. My mouth almost hit the floor when she said what many Christians often quote: that no one can believe in God unless he has received the gift of faith from God. I smiled to myself and thought, “This friendship is going to be interesting.”
I wondered if there were others like Hind and me, who came from very different backgrounds but were curious and looking for a unique heart connection. I emailed Phala Echols at Mississippi College’s Global Education office, director of the Adopt A Student program, which pairs international students with an American friend or family. The student and family don’t live together; they just commit to hanging out and getting to know each other.
“Our international students who connect with their Mississippi families seem to be more settled into life here. They know more of the ins and outs of life, things they can’t read in a book about our culture. Their experience is richer. They don’t just get a degree … they also learn about a family way of life that may be much different from where they came from, and they take their experiences with them when they leave,” wrote Echols.
I asked Echols if she could introduce me to an international student and his or her American family. Within a couple of days, I heard from Crystal Boda, an Indian international student studying health service administration at MC. Crystal is in India for the summer but was eager to write back and share about her relationship with her host family, Larry and Keisha McNeill and their 11-year-old daughter, Marleigh.
Crystal admitted that she signed up for the program because she was new to Mississippi College and feeling lonely. “I knew none of the people around me. Even talking and asking for directions was difficult.”
Her nervousness was based on warnings and advice she received in India. “Many people warned me to be careful as I’m going alone. They said, ‘No one will help you; you have to do it alone.’” But what Crystal discovered was exactly the opposite.
Reading her comments, I could identify. It is natural to experience fear when stepping into a relationship with strangers. Crystal, a registered doctor in India and self-described introvert, even considered withdrawing from the program when she learned she had been matched with a family.
“To be frank, I am not sociable. It is difficult for me to open up about myself to anyone. But then, I prayed to God saying He should guide me and help me overcome my nervousness.”
So with prayer and a little courage, Crystal met the McNeills. She was afraid they would misunderstand her ways. Instead they all experienced something similar to love at first sight; but more accurately, according to Crystal, “family at first sight.”
Sitting down to coffee with Keisha and Marleigh McNeill, I was interested to hear their take on the first meeting. Keisha said Crystal seemed a little shy at first.
However, “once we started talking in the car on the way to dinner, before we got to dinner 15 minutes later, it was like we had known each other all our lives,” Keisha says. It turned out both women were preachers’ kids, growing up in the same denomination. “It was like a match God had put together in heaven.”
Twelve-year-old Marleigh, an only child, describes Crystal as the big sister she never had. “We hit it off immediately, and it was great, and I had such a great feeling. I never want this to end.” Marleigh loved having this new “big sister” around for the holidays as well.
The coming months changed Crystal’s preconceived ideas of the American family, which were based on what she saw in the media. Her notions included a picture of luxury, wastefulness, children not respecting elders, and youngsters partying and drinking all night.
“After getting to know my host family, I got to know how hardworking a family is. They don’t waste money unnecessarily. They not only have God’s fear in them, but also God’s love …”
Both Keisha and Crystal fondly remember spending Christmas together. Crystal recalls, “My favorite experience was when I was missing my family for Christmas. My host family asked me to have dinner with them. When I went to their house, I found they had kept a sock (stocking) for me under the chimney with my name on it, which made me cry. I not only received gifts from them but love from the whole family.”
When Keisha learned Indian plum pudding was a holiday tradition, she took a stab at making one. “It was a lot like a fruitcake,” she says, “but much better.” That Christmas became a wonderful mix of American and Indian traditions that helped Crystal feel at home.
The McNeills and Crystal bonded on other occasions, too. It wasn’t uncommon for them to invite her over to hang out on a Friday night, and just like any college student, Crystal was invited to bring her laundry with her. The new friends would cook and eat together as well, and that morphed into getting to know Crystal’s family back in India.
“A lot of times she would get them on a video chat and she’d bring it (her phone) into the living room with her mom and dad and family there in India,” says Keisha. The connection is so strong, there is a standing invitation for the McNeills to visit Crystal’s family in India, and vice versa.
That invitation is not surprising, as Keisha and Crystal have developed a strong bond, sharing good and bad times together. Keisha has received texts from Crystal in the middle of the night to pray for an ailing father. The McNeills brought food and medicine to Crystal once when she was ill.
Crystal believes her relationship with the McNeills is unique compared to other international and host family relationships. “Though we may not be family by blood relation, but it is a family by Christ relation. God has given me a very loving family than I could ever find. They took care of me as their own child. They were there for me during my happy times and also during my sad times.”
If you ask Keisha, the feeling is mutual. She describes the relationship as one of sisters and sometimes mother and daughter. Looking at the pictures of them together, it is clear the McNeills and the Bodas will be a lifelong family.
It’s no wonder both women encourage participation in MC’s Adopt A Student program. Crystal writes, “I was benefitted with a people whom I can call them as my own. I was benefitted in understanding the culture about Americans and their life. I was able to know that you don’t need someone of your own blood to love you as your family.”
Keisha loved being able to share lives and culture, from football, tailgating and turkey dinners and burgers to Indian food and sari dresses. She is sure it was a God thing from the beginning.
As I thought about my relationship with Hind, I had to agree with a sermon Keisha recalled: “I remember a preacher we had that came to Broadmoor (Baptist Church) not long ago … he said we don’t have to go out in the highways and hedges and compel them to come in anymore. Pretty much God’s bringing them to us. He’s bringing the mission field here. I think it opens the door to sharing the gospel, and we don’t even have to leave our house.”
Every August, new students arrive at Mississippi College, and there is a need for more families to participate in Adopt A Student. Echols says the program does its best to combine people who are compatible.
As for the Lams, we couldn’t be any happier with our match. We love our new friend, her husband and boys. It’s been a joy to cook for them, have them in our home and enjoy their kindness and curiosity.
I have already experienced a few things I would not have experienced had I not met Hind: Saudi tea, the Jackson Islamic festival and a visit during Ramadan to the Madison mosque to observe how they celebrate their holiday. I have to admit, I tried the foot, face and ear washing and found it refreshing. And the mosque gives the Baptists a run for their money when it comes to an eating social.
When I arrived that evening, I found Hind sitting in the prayer room studying for her Mississippi College Bible test. Imagine that. I found myself wondering, “God, what are You doing?” And my mind rested on Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift from God, not a result of works, so that no one can boast.”