Helping International Students affirms need for relationships that cross borders

Robbin Cole, board member of Helping International Students, a nonprofit community organization in Manhattan. (Hannah Hunsinger | The Collegian)

When Robbin Cole was a sophomore at K-State in 1980, she had little idea how much a friend’s words would impact the rest of her life.

“We’re all going to need to be a friend to international students,” Penny Acasio, her American-born Filipino friend in high school, said.

Cole had not given much thought to international students before, but that would soon change.

“I was perfectly content with my life at that point,” Cole said. “I didn’t see why this was something I should do.”

However, her perspective changed when she was matched with Malaysian student Junedah Sanusi through Helping International Students, a Manhattan nonprofit community organization.

Soon after spending time with Sanusi, Cole began meeting and developing friendships with other international students. Those friendships fueled a passion in her and today she is a board member for HIS.

Former professor of veterinary medicine Bob Taussig and his wife, Mary, formed HIS as a part of a ministry at Grace Baptist Church in 1979. While traveling in Nigeria, the couple met with several people who had been international students in the U.S. A prevailing theme in their perception of the U.S. was that the students did not feel welcome during their stay here.

In an effort to change the negative feelings of international students, the couple took the initiative to reach out. The beginnings of HIS paired American students with international students at K-State, and the organization – as well as the friendships – grew from there.

“I think developing relationships with international students gives us the opportunity to genuinely care about what’s happening in other parts of the world,” Cole said. “As you get to know people from other countries, I think our perspective about the world changes, and I think we care more. We care more about all issues and about what’s going on in other parts of the world. It does affect us, so we should care.”

Today, HIS serves over 2,100 international students at K-State and partners with 27 local churches and campus ministries to provide events for international students.

“HIS is an organization that coordinates and facilitates,” Cole said. “We help equip and prepare the leaders of the churches and organizations to do whatever it is that they feel is their niche as they reach out to students.”

Some of the activities include welcome dinners, furniture giveaways, Conversation Café, Bike Night and free van rides for international students who need transportation.

When Ruben Shrestha came to Manhattan as an undergraduate student from Nepal, he needed furniture. A friend told him about HIS.

“When I first came here, I didn’t know anybody,” Shrestha, graduate student in chemistry, said. “Once I went to HIS’s furniture (event), I made some connections there. The circle of friendships grew a lot in numbers, so I have a lot of American friends now who are very good, very generous and very helpful.”

Shrestha is one of nine board members for HIS.

“We talk about making plans, how we can better serve the international community,” Shrestha said.

Brady Hendricks, junior in horticulture, serves as the youngest member of the board.

“I’ve been involved as a board member since last May,” Hendricks said. “Before that, I went to a group gathering they had on Friday nights at a couple’s house. I’ve been involved with Helping International Students for a couple (of) years.”

One of Hendricks’ favorite events has been the HIS dinners.

“They have a whole bunch of international students from all over the world,” Hendricks said. “We all get a meal together, share stories about where we’re from. It’s really cool to share points of view, practice English or fumble around with Spanish, for me.”

Cole, Shrestha and Hendricks may all come from different backgrounds, but they share the appreciation for reaching out to those who need a friend.

“I recognize the value of the relationships I formed with international students back when I was a college student, and I recognized how much my life was enriched because of my relationships with the international students,” Cole said.

Because Cole places a high value on investing in international relationships, her family has hosted numerous high school foreign-exchange students and continues to pursue ways to impact lives across borders.

“As Americans, we really need to take advantage to get involved in friendships with international students,” Cole said. “If we can get beyond our own discomfort with the unfamiliar and just reach out beyond ourselves, there really is a whole new world at our doorstep.”