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Cars pass and people enter and exit the University of Georgia’s Office of International Education on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Miranda Daniel)

When Estefania Palacios moved to the U.S. two years ago from Ecuador to get her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Georgia, she spent her first semester by herself. 

“When you come here, you have a cultural shock. It’s completely different,” Palacios said.

During her second semester, Palacios’ husband and daughter joined her. Palacios said her family was also affected by the cultural differences.

“It’s a traditional part of my family and my culture to every weekend visit the family or do activities,” Palacios said. “Here we’re just three: my husband, my daughter and me, and we’re kind of lonely.”

Palacios said she didn’t hear about any programs focused on families of international students until recently.

Last August, the Office of International Education launched a new program with the intent of creating a global community throughout UGA. The program, Global Families Partnership Program, connects U.S. and international families, enabling their socialization and interaction through OIE-organized events and independent outings.

“I think it is a really good program, and I hope that it will work for my family.”

-Estefania Palacios, UGA graduate student

“We want our scholars and students to be as successful as possible,” said Linnea Tighe, immigration adviser at OIE, in an email. “And we understand that much of that success is dependent upon the happiness and well-being of their families as a whole.”

Due to their visa category, dependents of international students are limited in the number and types of activities they can engage in. Dependents are not allowed to study full time or work. This includes freelancing and independent, income-earning projects, such as writing a book.

“These limitations coupled with language barriers and cultural differences make it common for dependents to feel isolated, lonely or nervous about exploring their new community,” Tighe said.

The program pairs international families and U.S. families together. Those interested in participating are asked to complete a survey. OIE staff uses information from this survey to match families likely to have more in common.

“We use this information to try and match families whose children can befriend someone their own age from across the world that they would otherwise never meet,” Tighe said.

The program has already made 25 partnerships since its inception, Tighe said.

Palacios said she discussed the new program with her husband. They decided to join Global Families to help her family integrate into their new community and improve her husband’s language.

“I said ‘I need to do something.’ To be part of this culture. To embrace this culture,” Palacios said.

Palacios and her family were matched with the family of a UGA professor, and she is excited about their upcoming connection. Palacios said her program partner seems like a good match because he is familiar with her culture and speaks Spanish.

“The good point is that he lived in Ecuador, so he already knows how my culture is,” Palacios said. “I think it is a really good program, and I hope that it will work for my family.”

Kate Morrissey Stahl, a clinical assistant professor in the school of social work at UGA and a U.S. citizen, is another participant of Global Families. She said she loves the idea of families connecting with other families to learn more about new cultures.

“Living on the university campus of course you meet a lot of people informally, and we have friends from lots of different places,” Morrissey Stahl said. “But I like the idea that there’s a way to meet people you wouldn’t necessarily meet otherwise.”

Morrissey Stahl said she is excited for her family to be involved in the program.

“I have two kids, a 2 year old and a 4 year old, and I’m excited for them to get to meet people from lots of different parts of the world,” Morrissey Stahl said.

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