Sharing cultures, changing perceptions

Little Falls Friends try to show international students what life is really like in Minnesota, America

Little Falls Friends volunteer, Mark Gilbert, fishing on the Mississippi River with St. Cloud State students from Saudi Arabia. Photo by Lois Hokanson

Would you like to be a diplomat and meet interesting people from around the world? Would you like to have a lasting impact on understanding and peace in the world? If your answer is yes to both questions you may enjoy being a volunteer for the group Little Falls Friends.

“There is a world map on a wall in my home,” said Lois Hokanson, who has been a volunteer with the Little Falls Friends for 26 years. “St. Cloud State students from around the world have signed the map. It’s like a giant guest book.”

Lois and other Little Falls Friends seeksto expose foreign students attending St. Cloud State University to life in Minnesota by inviting them to go on group outings during the school year. They also invite them into their homes during holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

“Volunteers have a progressive dinner for the international students during the month of December,” Lois said. “We want them to see what Christmas is like in the United States. They can see the decorations, taste the food, and learn about family traditions.”

Lois said that her group has discovered that only around 20 percent of the international students who visit the U.S. get to visit an American home.

“That means that their perception of Americans is based on the movies, TV, and things they see on campus. We wanted to change those perceptions and that statistic at SCSU,” she said.

Hokanson was an international student from St. Cloud State herself. She had an opportunity to live with a Portuguese family and to attend a university in Lisbon for a summer. The experience was powerful and taught her lessons for life. She wants to share that with international students that come to her country looking for a similar experience. Lois said the most important lessons she learned weren’t from the classes she took.

Volunteers took the international students on a bicycle ride last fall. The students are from Congo, Brazil, Japan, China and Malaysia. John Ebert is the community volunteer pictured. Jordie’s Trail Side Café provided treats and beverages to all riders, and the Little Falls Bike Shop provided a tandem bike for students who had never ridden a bike. Photo by Lois Hokanson

“I tell international students that I can’t remember one thing about the university campus in Lisbon, Portugal,” she said “I can’t tell you one thing that I learned or studied, but I can tell you so many experiences that I had with the Portuguese people. What I tell them is don’t limit your time at St. Cloud State to just your classes and friends.”

As a young student, Lois left Minneapolis on June 1, 1969. That was the day of the first-ever nonstop flight from Wold Chamberlin airport in Minneapolis to Paris, France. From Paris Lois travelled to Lisbon.

“I had the privilege of living with a family,” Lois remembered. “They were millionaires, and back in 1969, millionaires were unusual. They wanted to host an English-speaking student because they wanted their son to learn English.”

“I did live with millionaires, but my closest friendship was with a custodian at the Free School I was working with. It was a couple. They had no children and lived in a one-room flat. To this day one of my most treasured possessions is a plate that I received from them. It came from their cupboard. That cupboard had only eight to 10 plates, but they gave one to me because they wanted a part of themselves to go with me.”

“The part of that experience that became the life lesson was when I decided that since I was in Europe I might as well get a Eurail pass and see Europe. My host family brought me to the railroad station. We were there about 20 minutes early and were standing around making small talk. Then in comes the custodian waving a beautiful bouquet of flowers. He was so happy to see me, and he wanted to say goodbye. My dear host family could no longer stay and see me off. They politely excused themselves and said, Lois it was great having you and we’d be happy to see you some time again. I remember getting on that train weeping and vowing that I would never value or judge a person based on their socio-economic status.”

Lois’ youthful experiences, like her precious plate, have stayed with her nearly half a century. She wants students that come to her alma mater to have similar formative experiences.

“I’ve been an international student going out from St. Cloud State, and now I can work with the international students coming to St. Cloud,” she said.

One of the events that she and the other Little Falls Friends volunteers put on for international students is the annual bike ride.

“We usually kick off the school year with a bicycle ride on the Soo Trail,” Lois said. “Camp Ripley is very generous and loans us 30 bicycles and helmets. I’ve learned, to my surprise, that some students have never ridden a bicycle. I thought the whole world rode bicycles.”

Two other popular events are the summer and winter fishing outings. Mark Gilbert, of Little Falls, helps organize those. Gilbert, who has been volunteering with Little Falls Friends for five years, said that he really enjoys being with the international students.

Little Falls Friends volunteer Mark Gilbert ice fishing with international students from St. Cloud State. Most international students never get this opportunity. Photo by Lois Hokanson

“One of the things we’ve done is to share a bit of our Minnesota natural resources with them,” he said. “This year we took them ice fishing out to Camp Ripley in January. The students were able to participate in a natural resources presentation at the environmental center there. Then they were able to go with us out onto the ice and drill holes in the ice and set up shelters. We told them about the Minnesota culture of ice fishing. Some of them had never stepped foot on ice. It’s quite an experience to go from a tropical climate to 10 below zero. We had to show them how to layer clothes and make sure everybody had their skin protected.”

Mark enjoys building relationships with the students. He also enjoys learning about the different cultures that the students come from.

“We learn so much from them,” he said. “We usually give them opportunities to show us about their country and what their family life is like. Then we share a little bit about where we’re from and what we do. It’s a pretty neat thing. Lois and her husband, Dick, who passed away a year ago, started it.”

One way to learn about other people is to eat with them and to share food preparation customs with each other. The Little Falls Friends and the international students enjoy cooking and eating the fish that they catch together.

“We discovered that different cultures like their fish different ways,” Mark said. “For example, some like to keep the fins and scales on. They share with us how they prepare fish in their own culture, and we’ve been accommodating to that. A Russian gal had hers served on a silver platter. We make sure we have different condiments. Sometimes it’s vinegar, and sometimes it’s hot sauce or something else.”

Recently the students prepared an appreciation meal for their American friends. They served dishes like Kuwaiti-style pasta and Soso Ya Mwamba, a peanut and chicken recipe from the Congo.

“They told us why these dishes were important to them and their families,” Lois said. “A St. Cloud State staff member recently told us that our involvement in hosting these students is probably more valuable than the embassies we have in those countries. I believe we are doing civilian diplomacy.”

If you’d like to make some new friends, share something about the goodness of Minnesota, and practice civilian diplomacy, you can contact Lois by email at, or you can call her at 651-775-8440.

“Being a volunteer for Little Falls Friends is different than hosting a foreign exchange student,” Lois said. “The students don’t live with you so it’s not such a huge commitment.”

#InternationalStudents #LittleFalls #StCloudState

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