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La Roche College's international students form bonds in area

| Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Marilyn Gurtner, 74, of McCandless (center) visits with Arthur Kiiza, 39, whom she met when he was a student at La Roche College in McCandless in 2000, in Uganda in June 2013. With them are Kiiza's children (from left), Destiny, 6; Megan, 4; and Jefferson, 8.
Waleed Abdullah Albidah of Saudi Arabia, a student at La Roche College in McCandless, eats Thanksgiving dinner in 2013 at the home of the Brown family in O'Hara Township.
Ben Brown (left) andFahad Albalawi of Saudi Arabia, a student at La Roche College in McCandless, spend Thanksgiving 2013 at the Brown family's home in O'Hara Township.

When Marilyn Gurtner decided to use a brunch coupon after church during the 2000 holiday season, she never expected that the visit to the restaurant would lead her 7,000 miles from her home in McCandless.

Friendly banter with her waiter, Arthur Kiiza, an international student studying at La Roche College in McCandless, turned into a friendship of more than a decade. Gurtner, 74, twice has visited Kiiza's home in the east African nation of Uganda.

Each year, chance encounters and organized school programs connect international students at La Roche to local families that open their homes to them during the holiday season.

“I get choked up when I think about how we met Arthur,” Gurtner said. She still stays in contact with Kiiza, who she now calls a son.

Inspired by a sermon at church, Gurtner had it in her head that she wanted to get to know a young man from a struggling African nation. Then Kiiza came to take their drink order.

“It was an act of God,” she said.

Kiiza spent the holidays with the Gurtners and eventually moved into their home while he got his master's degree in economics at the University of Pittsburgh.

The relationship continued even after Kiiza moved back to his home country. Gurtner visited him for the entire month of June 2011 and again in 2013 in Uganda.

La Roche has about 300 international students who live, work and build friendships in the community each year.

“I think that's what distinguishes La Roche from other small schools,” said Natasha Garrett, director of international student services at La Roche. “It's definitely an asset for us. … It's a very global campus.”

While in some cases, such as Kiiza and the Gurtners, families and students come together naturally, the college also has programs to help students broaden their American experience and give them a place to go on American holidays. La Roche's Host Family Program pairs students with local families who invite them to their Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations.

Families generally are recruited through churches and staff acquaintances.

Garrett said the feeling of home is comforting to students from other countries.

“Students are really excited to be in an environment with children and pets,” she said. “They get a taste of home life that they're missing.”

Ariella Itangishaka, a La Roche student from Burundi in east Africa, spent Thanksgiving with Bronwynn and Michael Mcadams of McCandless.

“I liked how friendly they were and made (me) part of their family for a little (while),” said Itangishaka, 21. “Celebrating with an American family was a great experience. I had the occasion to know the American culture better — what they eat, what are the conversation subjects and who does what when sharing a meal.”

La Roche enlisted more than 25 families to participate in the program this year, including Mary and Graham Bullen of Hampton Township.

The Bullens hosted two students from Saudi Arabia for Thanksgiving, while their adult children were out of town for the holiday to visit in-laws.

As natives of New Zealand, the Bullens know what it's like to be a young person in a foreign country.

“We really wanted to do this because when (Graham) was here as a student, he was invited to friends' homes for holidays, and he really appreciated it,” said Mary Bullen, 71.

Those in families who have hosted international students say there are benefits to hosts, as well.

“There is such joy in becoming acquainted with young people that have different cultures and experiences to share with you,” Gurtner said.

Laurie Brown, 49, of O'Hara Township twice has hosted international students in her family's home.

“It was a wonderful experience for my kids,” said Brown, who has three sons, ages 10, 12 and 14. “My boys were really curious about their lives, which are so different from theirs, and the students were very gracious about answering their questions.”

Families interested in getting involved in La Roche's Host Family Program can email Garrett at

“There's never a shortage of students,” she said.

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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