Friends for LIFE

Nation and World
LIFE program - Rynars

On the morning of the 2014 Harrisonburg International Festival, Jayne and Eric Rynar received a text message from their international student asking if her roommates could hitch a ride.

“So out come these four young women and they all scrunch into the back of our car,” Jayne Rynar recalls. “We went to the festival and had a great time. Coming back, I turned [to the group] and said, ‘So I guess we’ll be taking you back to the dorm now.’ But they weren’t ready to go back yet. So I looked at Eric and I turned around again and said, ‘Do you want to come back to our house? I can’t cook for six people at the spur of the moment, but we could order a pizza.’ And they said, ‘Yes, pizza, we love pizza!’ And that’s when the magic started.”

The Rynars volunteer with Leaders in International Friendship Exchange, which matches international students at JMU with local families for friendship and cultural exchange. LIFE is not a residential program; rather, the families volunteer to spend time with the students and include them in activities such as meals, recreational outings, events and more.

The LIFE program developed as a result of a survey conducted by the Office of International Programs. Program director Hunter Swanson says international students are genuinely interested in learning more about American life and customs through interactions with a local family. “They get outside of just meeting 18- to 21-year-olds on campus,” he says.

When they’re not at JMU, Andrea Diaz Centeno, Omaima Ahmed and Valeria Fadeeva like to hang out at the Rynar home in Port Republic, about half an hour east of Harrisonburg.

“We do all sorts of things together,” Jane Rynar says. “We go to the park, the Forbes Center [for the Performing Arts], ice skating. We celebrate birthdays together. Sometimes we just sit and talk. … This house sparkles when they are here. It could be a rainy, dreary day, but when these young women are here and you hear them laughing and giggling, the house is filled with such joy and it becomes bright.”

“I wanted to find a local family so they could teach me what they do here and to practice my English as well,” says Diaz Centeno, who is from Mexico and is double majoring in media arts and design and management. “I’m the kind of person that likes to know people’s backgrounds. Their point of views and way of living are so interesting to me. I think that’s why I keep coming. I love them. I am really happy with this family.”

Ahmed, an accounting major from Bahrain, agrees. “I wanted to meet different people, and the program gave me the chance to do that. I wasn’t very confident about it going in because I’m not the kind of person that clicks with people right away. So when I met Jayne and Eric, I was surprised when that happened. We are so different as individuals, but we have so much to talk about and we all get along so well. They have become like a family to me.”

"I wanted to find a local family so they could teach me what they do here and to practice my English as well. … Their point of views and way of living are so interesting to me. I think that’s why I keep coming. I love them. I am really happy with this family.”
— Andrea Diaz Centeno

Students in the LIFE program — and their parents — take comfort in having a local family to call on during their time at JMU.

“For us, coming from such far distances, it’s almost impossible to go home for a weekend or over a [university] break,” says Yi Ping, a psychology major from Taiwan. “And it’s nice to have somewhere to go when you just need some time away from studying. Every time I step into this house, it comforts me. It reminds me of home.”

Swanson says the families, in turn, gain an appreciation of different cultures, sample new cuisines and even pick up on a new language.

“We have learned so much about how their families function and what they do,” Jane Rynar says. “In some ways, it has helped me to shed some prejudices. That’s one of the wonderful things about the program. Your eyes open and you become more receptive, and you see life differently than you would if you had not have had these experiences.”

LIFE program

As a result of their friendship with Yi Ping, local residents Barbara and Jake Tapping have been invited to visit her family in Taiwan. “The rewarding part for us is that we’ll continue to be friends long after she leaves JMU,” Barbara Tapping says.

Students and families must apply to take part in the LIFE program. Families participating for the first time are required to pass a background check and attend an orientation prior to the start of the fall semester to prepare them for interacting with international students. Participants are matched according to similar interests as well their expectations for how often they want to meet. The program offers time commitments of three months, eight months or a full year.


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Published: Monday, June 22, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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