CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Last week, 75 people from 20 nations strolled down a residential street a few blocks from the University of Northern Iowa campus. They were headed to a garden party at a stranger's home in a foreign country.
A block away, Dianna and Jim Geiger and friends set out plates and silverware, yard games and chairs. Together, they prepared to greet UNI international students, most of whom are continents away from family, many with limited English, but all looking for a place to call home, if just for a while.
For years, community members have welcomed these young, excited and sometimes fearful youth into their homes.
"It is so easy for me and not expensive (to) open door, open heart and open refrigerator," said Dianna Geiger.
Sally Roos, activities coordinator for the Culture and Intensive English Program at UNI, handles the practical needs of about 400 students from 71 countries, but she doesn't ignore the role of community.
"Seventy-five to 80 percent of international students never visit an American's home," she said. "It's part of my responsibility as activities coordinator to ensure that this is not the case for my students."
At the gathering, Hanyi Zhang, a returning interior design major from China, helped fill in English words for new student Wan Chen Han. She is an accounting and English major, and on her sixth day in a foreign land she made a valiant attempt to communicate with a Cedar Falls native.
"I miss my family," Han said.
Yabo Akogbeto, from western Africa, completed three years at Kirkwood Community College and is starting over in Cedar Falls, where she will complete her bachelor's and master's degrees. She told partygoers she is homesick for the flavors of her homeland: abobo--- a mix of rice and black eyed peas--- as well as her favorite dish, cooked spinach and tomatoes with rich spicy flavoring.
Three Japanese girls assembled enough English words to share first impressions and surprises. "Everything is so big! Everyone is so friendly!" said Sachiko Yukawa from Osaka, Japan.
Miki Fujita hopes to perfect her English at UNI and get a degree in education. After six days, she was a bit homesick for family and her native foods. "Cakes here are too sweet and colorful," she said, smiling.
Parash Upereti, from Nepal, is a returning international student, but he remembers his first American experience. "I knew I was coming to Iowa and expected only farms," he said.
But Parash's plane landed in Minneapolis where he saw only tall buildings. He now laughs at the memory. In Nepal, Parash lives in a city of one million people, but he embraces his Iowa home.
"Everyone is friendly, and now I have friends from all over the world," he said.
The partygoers enjoyed American and international foods and tossed Frisbees and tapped croquet balls. Many wrapped up in vintage quilts the Geigers provided to students who discovered an Iowa evening much cooler than home. A campfire was lit, and volunteer Britta Adams brought out her guitar, trading songs with some of the students. Han snapped photos.
"I hope the international students coming to UNI feel incredibly welcome here," Roos said. "I hope they get a taste of Midwest hospitality and feel the love that these people have in their hearts for international students."
Roos said volunteers are always welcome for the International Friendship Program, which connects community volunteers with UNI students for cultural exchange and fellowship. For details, visit www.uni.edu.