Jared Jenkins, a volunteer for Friends of Internationals at the University of South Florida, grins and reminisces while sitting at his dining room table.
He has accumulated countless stories from his experiences with international students, some that leave him laughing hysterically and others that make his stomach sink.
Friends of Internationals is an organization dedicated to helping international students create social networks and enjoy their stay in America. However, the ride isn’t solely filled with laughs and adventure. Severe depression and homesickness are rampant among these students.
Jonathan Rottenberg, associate professor of psychology at USF, believes that homesickness is an understudied phenomenon.
“They get seriously depressed and don’t get help, in part because they are away from home and don’t know what mental health resources are available to them,” Rottenberg said.
Jenkins prays for his loved ones at every given opportunity. The tone of his voice combined with the long pauses and sighs suggests he wishes he had the power to change the distress.
“This last semester is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said, adding that he has had students who are very close to him go through depression.
Rottenberg believes social integration is essential for international students because it is an important part of remaining resistant to serious depression.
Fortunately, Friends of Internationals provides students with many opportunities to socialize and develop relationships in their new setting.
Jenkins and his wife Cindy became active in Friends of Internationals about five years ago, and since then have hosted numerous events for these students including cookouts, birthday parties and boat rides.
“They treat me like family,” said Jake Qingteng Zhang, a student from China.
The organization also offers students a program that sets them up with American families for holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. The “Friendship Partner Program” sometimes helps hundreds of students a semester.
“We give the students an opportunity to have a cross-cultural experience,” said Joseph Pardo, Director of Friends of Internationals. “This way they can build friendships and even a family.”
Jenkins and his wife connect with international students during holidays, as well. Although the couple usually invites students to their home to celebrate Easter, this year they offered students the option to attend their church.