Grinnell host family forms long-lasting friendships with international students

Feb. 13, 2018 — When Ashray Dixit ’14 was getting ready to graduate from Grinnell College, several family members came from his native Nepal to attend Commencement.  

Grinnell residents John and Connis Dayton had gotten to know Dixit during his time in Grinnell, and engaged in many interesting civic discussions with the political science major. The Daytons invited Dixit’s parents, aunt, and grandmother to stay with them during Commencement week. 

“His mother taught us how to make milk tea and they cooked for us,” John Dayton says. “It was fun to have them stay with us.”

Shuto Yamamoto ’22, left, and his mother, Sayuri Yamamoto, shoot a selfie with the Daytons during the fall semester.
Shuto Yamamoto ’22, left, and his mother, Sayuri Yamamoto, take a selfie with the Daytons during the fall semester.

 The Daytons are one of many local families participating in the Grinnell College Friends of International Students program through the Office of International Student Affairs. The program, often abbreviated as FIS, strives to build student/community host friendships across culture, generations, and communities. While international students live on campus, FIS hosts often invite students to visit their homes for meals and holidays. Students – in turn – often invite hosts to campus activities.

Grinnell College enrolls over 300 international students from nearly 50 nations. New international students, and a small number of U.S. students who have lived abroad are extended the opportunity to be part of the Friends of International Students program.

“I’m always very impressed by these students,” John says. “They are coming from a country, cultural, and language much different than Grinnell. They have the confidence and inquisitiveness to endure those differences.”

The Daytons previously hosted six international high school exchange students who resided with them while they were in the U.S. In 2007, they saw a newspaper article in the Grinnell Herald-Register about the College’s Friends of International Students program and thought that they would enjoy it.

“The relationship with college students is different than high school students,” Connis says. “Instead of being a parent, you are more like a friend. You get to know them well over four years. It’s been fun. I can’t think of anything I haven’t enjoyed.”

Students appreciate having a local connection, and the opportunity to introduce their country and culture.

“They really tell you a lot about where they are from, their housing, food, and even their political views,” Connis says.

Thorsten Kern ’15 hailed from Germany where Connis’ ancestors are from. Kern is the only one of the 10 college students the Daytons have hosted who came from a small town. The rest were from large cities. Coming to Grinnell has taken some adjusting, Connis said, and that’s where FIS hosts can be supportive.  

Connis says they usually start by taking the students out to eat and driving them around town. They attend Family Weekend at the College with the students and do something special for their birthdays. Since many international students have to stay around Grinnell during school breaks and holidays, that’s often when they interact with FIS hosts.

One tradition the Daytons started with the students was pumpkin carving before Halloween. The students also are invited for Thanksgiving, which is a big family celebration. The Daytons have five kids and seven grandkids of their own.

The Dayton’s first host student, Pengjun Shen ’11, arrived in Grinnell from China before school started in 2007, so he stayed with the Daytons for a few weeks and returned to live with them during the summers. The Daytons youngest two children, who also were in college at the time, became good friends with Shen.

“Shen was an only child, so he considered our kids as his brother and sister,” John says. “They even all went on a trip to California together to do some sightseeing.”

Trang Nguyen ’17 and Connis Dayton baked pies for a Thanksgiving meal at the Dayton's house.
Trang Nguyen ’17 and Connis Dayton baked pies for a Thanksgiving meal at the Dayton's house.

Though now retired, John taught social sciences for nearly 40 years at Grinnell High School and coached track, which makes for some interesting conversations about academics and athletics. Vietnam native Trang Nguyen ’17 majored in math and loved to chat with the Daytons about economics. Rohan Gandotra ’20, who is currently studying abroad in Czech Republic, was asked to play football at Grinnell even though he never played it before growing up in India.

The Daytons still stay in touch with the students they hosted. Honduras native Glenda Lopez ’12 is a residency medical doctor in New Mexico. Dixit attended graduate school in Boston and now is back in Nepal. Nguyen just started a new job with Tamr, a data company in Boston. Yuxi “Evelyn” Deng ’18 works for Goldman Sachs in New York City.

John and Connis highly recommend other Grinnell area families consider being part of the host program.

“It’s interesting to see them grow,” Connis says of the students. “Often when they first come, they are hesitant with the language. But they become so confident and high achieving over the four years.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Grinnell-area residents can learn more about the Friends of International Students, and how to apply to be part of the program for the 2019-20 school year.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.