Tuscaloosa International Friends creates connections with international students

Jeffrey Kelly | @jeffkellyjr, Assistant Culture Editor

More than 38,000 students from various backgrounds enroll at the University of Alabama every year, making it easy for them to get lost. For international students, there’s an added layer of navigating the unknown when facing new cultural traditions and distance from home. 

Tuscaloosa International Friends (TIF) is a program meant to relieve those feelings of worry by connecting international students with Tuscaloosa locals.  

TIF was founded in 1972 and sponsors many events, including picnics, dinners and parties. Its friendship family program, though, is its main staple.

Through the friendship family program, international students are matched with Tuscaloosa residents and given a chance to learn about the cultures and customs of Americans in Tuscaloosa while also sharing parts of their culture. 

Opeyemi Adewumi, a Nigerian student pursuing a doctorate in human nutrition, met her friendship family at a TIF welcome event.  

“It was so heartwarming to know that you have somebody here because your parents are not here at all,” Adewumi said. “I really loved it.” 

For TIF president Minda Paxton, the friendship family program was a way to not only help international students but also to expose her children to global perspectives. 

“I enjoy interacting with people from other cultures,” Paxton said. “We knew that we could be a friendship family and have people in our home that would give [us] a cultural experience.” 

While students don’t live with them, friendship families become a contact for international students in Tuscaloosa. TIF hosts and students can connect through annual TIF events, like the Welcome Party and President’s Reception, or other local events and various holiday gatherings. 

Adewumi recalled how meeting UA President Stuart Bell at the President’s Reception was something she’d never forget. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever met him after that, and I don’t know when I’m ever going to meet him again, so that was a great opportunity,” she said. 

Paxton said the friendship family program allowed her family to learn a lot about the various cultures, education, political climates and hobbies of its international students and their home countries. For Paxton, cultural learning is truly an exchange.

Over the years, Paxton’s family has been the friendship family for students from Nigeria, Germany, Austria and a few Asian countries. They have shared in the cuisine of their respective countries. They have been able to help their students experience their first high school football game and dance. They have gone to beaches, lakes and parks for hikes. 

Paxton said one of her favorite experiences was when the family had asked two Japanese students what they would like to do in America. 

“They giggled, and they said, ‘We’d like to drive a car.’ It’s very rare to get to drive a car in Japan,” she said. “We took them to the parking lot of Coleman Colosseum and let them drive our car. They were so delighted – It was the funniest thing.” 

Paxton said the friendship family program was rewarding, and she’d like it if more people got involved.

“There’s a missed opportunity of building relationships and cultural understanding and respect that we’re really missing out on when you don’t engage with these international students,” she said. 

Adewumi said the support of TIF and the friendship family program helped boost her confidence and made her acclimation to the community “relaxing.”

“Having that support, I can say, has really helped me improve not just my social life, even my academic grades. It really helped me just have the solid foundation that I needed to believe in myself and start working,” she said. “And if I didn’t have so much support, I don’t know if I would be able to do as well academically and in other areas as I did.”

For more information about Tuscaloosa International Friends and the friendship family program, check out their website at tuscaloosainternationalfriends.com.