AEI program helps international students feel at home

The Matteson family welcomes new student

The job of the UO’s American English Institute is to help international students settle in with the English language, but it takes a host family to really make a new arrival feel at home.

That’s why the institute, now in its 40th year, is always looking for new hosts to take in one of about 100 international students who enroll in its Intensive English Program, which offers English language instruction for students preparing to enter regular classes on campus, or who are taking part in study abroad. Students typically stay with their host families for at least one full term before moving into campus residence halls or off-campus housing, some stay longer.

The homestay program places international students with families around the Eugene-Springfield area. The host families, which are all located within a 45-minute bus ride from the UO campus, provide each student with a private bedroom, two meals a day on weekdays and three meals a day on weekends. Students pay $650 a month. 

“It’s a very, very affordable way to live,” said Suzie Heilman, the institute’s homestay coordinator. “They get help with their English, and there’s also a safety factor for a lot of parents of these kids. They like the fact that they’re with a family who’s checking to make sure they got home okay, they’re eating okay.”

Heilman manages about 95 host families, most of which have hosted multiple times. The longest-serving host family has hosted for 28 consecutive years.

Ahmed Almousa, an intensive English student from Saudi Arabia, was placed with the same couple that hosted his friend for a year. His host parents recently took a short trip to Paris, and Almousa made them a welcome-back chocolate cake.

Almousa enjoys their company and finds it helps him with his English.

“After dinner we talk for one hour or two hours,” he said. “After that maybe we watch a movie.”

The power of the homestay experience was illustrated recently when a former host family donated $200,000 to establish a Janet Hughes Mersereau Scholarship ( This family welcomed a student from Korea into their home and a long-term relationship was started and now they want to give back to students who may not be able to study English in the US. The institute will offer eight single-term scholarships over six years, thanks to the donor’s generosity. 

Ian Johnson, a retired elementary school teacher who has served as a host since 2003, thinks of it as a way to give back.  

“I survived my world travels with the help of each country’s generous and friendly citizens,” Johnson said. “I am paying it back with hosting. Plus, I enjoy the students.”

Others simply find that they enjoy having an international student in their home and keep coming back.

“We had our first student, a Japanese young lady, and we enjoyed the experience very much, so we continued to host,” said Pat Vohs, a retired Eugene police officer who has hosted for 29 years. “I think I get more out the experience than my students. My first student's father drove a honey wagon picking up sewage and another student's father was the vice president of his country.  So there is a wide spectrum of students, but all are precious.” 

Heilman visits all the hosting homes to ensure suitability, searching for families excited to share their culture while learning about another. When possible, she pairs students and hosts with common interests.

“Several of our homestay families at our last host family orientation talked about how they just enjoy exposing their kids to people from around the world,” said Cheryl Ernst, the director of the institute.

Each homestay family is different. Some homes consist of a couple with or without small children, some are older couples and some are just a single man or woman.

Regardless, all host families share a desire to share a bit of their lives and culture and learn about a new culture in return.

“It's making lifelong friends, who we meet years later or travel and play with long after hosting them,” according to Samy Rebeiz, who is originally from Lebanon but has lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years. He and his wife Noi have been hosting since 2011. “It's watching friendships develop between our own kids and students. It's sharing cultural diversities and similarities in so many different ways.”

Before getting the job as homestay director, Heilman was a host for almost to 20 years. Like most hosts, she is still in touch with many of her former guests. She emphasized that the homestay experience can be transformative not only for the students, but for the hosts.

Heilman once hosted a student from Saudi Arabia. She took him to the Oregon Coast and watched him witness an environment like nothing he had ever seen before.

“He was just like, ‘I have dreamed of places like this but never thought I would stand in one of these places.’ He was so taken with the rocky coast and it just makes you smile all over again no matter how many times you’ve seen that spot,” Heilman said. “It’s fun to see our world through someone else’s eyes. It’s like taking a little kid to Disneyland. They just see it so different from you.”  

Jumping into an entirely new language and culture can be an overwhelming experience, but Heilman has found that when met with empathy, students adjust. Even when the language gap seems insurmountable, students and their hosts find ways to communicate.

“I am really skilled at playing charades now,” she said. “You have a lot of situations where if everyone’s trying, it just works out; it really does.” 

By Sarah Eddy, University Communications