Bringing the world home

Kalamazoo couple host international students to teach their children about other cultures

By Margaret von Steinen

Tariq with host family at dinner tableAfter the birth of their fourth child, Dr. Lisa Miller chanced upon an opportunity to broaden the world her children would be exposed to in their Midwestern Michigan home. 

While shopping for second-hand items at a garage sale a few years ago, Miller met Barb Curley, owner of Lodge & Learn, a provider of homestay options at affordable prices to Western Michigan University international students. Curley had a table at the sale and was signing up families who were interested in hosting a student. 

WMU’s Center for English Language and Culture for International Students—CELCIS—has worked with Lodge & Learn since 2006 to help international students gain an experience many wish to have while in the United States—living with an American family. The exchange between homestay guests and the families they live with provides rich opportunities for students to enjoy a full-immersion, language-learning experience and for the host family to learn about an overseas culture.

“We have four children ages 4 to 13 so we don’t travel much other than road trips to see our families in North and South Dakota,” said Miller, an assistant professor of surgery in WMU’s Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. “Hosting international students is our way of showing our children the world without having to do a lot of traveling. We wanted them to learn about different cultures, lifestyles, religions and languages. Because we’ve now hosted several students from the Middle East, our children know a little bit of Arabic, why Muslims pray five times a day, and how they observe Ramadan.”

Helping international students arrange a homestay opportunity is a high priority for the CELCIS program because it is mutually beneficial for the guest and the host family, says CELCIS Director Tom Marks. "I don't think I can overstate the benefits of a homestay experience,” Marks said. “In addition to being immersed in an English language 

CELCIS student with host familyenvironment, the homestay student has a bird's eye view of American family culture, as well as the chance to make friendships that will last a lifetime."

The Miller family’s first student, Tariq, is from Saudi Arabia, and he came to WMU to study aviation. Having left behind a very large, supportive family, Tariq requested to be placed with a large family on his Lodge & Learn housing application. He lived with the Millers for eight months. "It was like home, especially with the Millers.  It is much easier if the family has kids. Kids are much easier to talk to, especially in the early stages of learning English."

“Our kids love Tariq,” Miller said. “Our youngest was 1.5 years old when he moved in and she was a big mommy’s girl—she would immediately come to me every time I got home. After Tariq had been with us a couple months she wouldn’t give me the time of day if he was around when I got home. He still comes to visit us every few months and joins us for Thanksgiving dinner and the children’s birthday parties.”

Tariq shared is favorite memory of his homestay experience, "I still remember the Millers laughing at my reaction when I saw snow for the first time in my life. They told me it was nothing, and we will have more in the upcoming months. My eyes went wide open. I don't know how to thank them for this good memory I had with them."

The family has since hosted three additional Saudi males for one semester and some Chinese and Japanese students for shorter stays; they are expecting a student from Korea to arrive in August 2016. “It was no problem to fulfill Lodge & Learn requirements to serve as a host family,” Miller said. “You have to provide the student with their own bedroom and two meals per day, preferably eaten with the family. We had an extra bedroom and family meals are important to Neal and me, so we have a routine of coming together to eat.”

The Millers have discovered that host students are quite willing to try new foods and that it is not difficult to accommodate their dietary needs. “We have a wide variety of things we make and we plan meals a week ahead,” Miller said. “If we have Muslim students in the house we avoid pork, which isn’t a problem. We eat pancakes and bacon when they are away from home.”

The Lodge & Learn screening process for prospective host families includes background checks and a house inspection to ensure the student’s bedroom—and the home overall—meet the organization’s standards. Curley determines family/student pairings based on both parties’ preferences and the greatest need at the time. 

Neal has the primary responsibility of caring for the Miller’s children and home. He discovered a “great” benefit of the homestay arrangement that neither he nor Lisa had anticipated when they signed on to host international students. “I enjoy having students living with us because I have someone else to talk to,” Neal said. “As a stay-at-home dad, it is fun to have another ‘adult’ in the house to interact with!”

Hosting international students sometimes enables Americans to develop fond relationships with students’ parents and families and the opportunity to visit a hosted student’s home country as their guest. “Tariq’s family comes to Kalamazoo to see him almost every summer because it is so hot in Saudi Arabia,” Miller said. “When Tariq gets back home we hope to visit him and his family. When he arrived at WMU, Tariq was going to be an engineer, but he changed majors to aviation. He already has a job lined up as pilot with Saudi airline when he graduates. We are very proud of him!”

Provide a home for an international Bronco

Western Michigan University is seeking homestay placements for visiting international teachers and students via Lodge & Learn. A stipend of $450 a month will be paid to each hosting family for the duration of the guest's stay, which can range from four weeks to one year.

A simple, online application process is utilized for host family selection. To apply, interested families may send an email to or call Barb Curley, host family coordinator with Lodge & Learn in Portage, Mich.: +1 (269) 217-9094.