Bringing a home away from home to the community
By Karmen Wells
February 27, 2014
Amira Guo came to Western from Beijing to attend Ivey Business School. But she didn't know she’d also be helping fellow international students find comfort in a new country.
In her first year of university, Guo, 20, participated in the Porch Light Program at Western – a program hosted by local volunteers designed to provide a Canadian home experience for female students who have never been to Canada.
“It was the first time I actually left my whole family behind,” Guo said. “I was curious and excited, but also a bit intimidated.”
After hearing about Porch Light from a peer guide at Western, Guo said the program made her transition into a new country much smoother.
Porch Light provides new international female students the opportunity to connect with women living in the London area for one afternoon each month for six months. Porch Light community hosts can be sisters, colleagues, neighbours or friends who team up to host a small group in their homes each month.
The goal of the program is to help new international female students through the transition period of adjusting to their new life at Western and in Canada. Student participants share conversation, practice English (if needed), and have fun talking and doing activities together with their hosts.
After the year she participated, Guo acted as the main contact for students if they had any concerns or ideas for improving the gatherings.
“The hosts encouraged me to be open with people and also to help people whenever I can,” Guo said. “I think the helping value is very impressive in Canada.”
Founded in 2007, Porch Light operates through the International Exchange Student Centre (IESC) at Western. It originated after Porch Light community hosts Kem Murch and Heni Ritchie produced a film-making project called Voices of Diversity. They heard from many international female students who said they had never experienced what it was like to be in a Canadian home.
“Kem and Heni were really disheartened to hear that and thought it was a shame that these lovely young women hadn’t had that opportunity,” said Diana Reynolds, Western’s international transitions advisor. “Together, with the staff at IESC, they created the Porch Light Program.
“(It) was developed for an all-women environment with the thought that this would provide the most comfort for women to be able to speak more openly.”
In its first year, Porch Light drew six students who met one Saturday a month. This year, the program drew 26 students from China, Cuba, India, Iran, Russia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.
Because of the increased interest, Porch Light added an extra day. Now, two groups meet in two different host homes on both Saturday and Sunday, one weekend a month.
“Empathy, warmth, kindness and respect are key qualities for community hosts,” Reynolds said. “Students often refer to them as their grandmothers here in Canada.”
After her first year, Guo volunteered as a Porch Light student host. Before every gathering, she met with the community hosts to see what kind of activities they wanted to have for the students. Although Guo is no longer a participant in Porch Light, she still keeps in contact with her old community hosts.
“We were all very shy at our first gathering, but the hosts were really friendly and welcoming,” Guo said. “They would encourage us to share, so when we had any concerns at school or anything, we could just spill it and they would comfort us.”
The students would also share stories of their own cultures and celebrate their different holidays at the gatherings.
“I found that I appreciate my own culture more after I participated in Porch Light,” Guo said. “We did a lot of reflections and I when I was in Beijing, I didn’t really think my culture was that special. After coming here I think what we do back home is pretty nice.”
Guo is currently in her final year at Western. But she still attends the semi-annual potlucks that are open to anyone who has participated in the program.
Guo has many favourite moments from the Porch Light gatherings, such as dressing up for Halloween. But most of all, she wishes she could take the sense of community it instilled in her back home.
“Porch Light is a family to me, and most of the participants, I think,” she said.
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