Open Arms

Mason and Kate Schramm of Yankton are the welcome family for Mount Marty College student Juan Duarte, one of 17 new international students attending the college this year. 

The Yankton campus of Mount Marty College (MMC) is seeing a rich diversity of culture.

At the start of the fall semester, the college welcomed 17 new international students from: Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Republic of Georgia, Serbia, Venezuela and the United Kingdom.

While MMC has welcomed international students before, this is the first time so many have come at once. With this influx, MMC administrators decided to try a new program in which Yankton community members act as “welcome families” to these students, helping them integrate into the community and acting as surrogate parents.

MMC Dean of Enrollment Stephanie Moser said new head men’s soccer coach Carlos Saenz was the program’s most vocal supporter.

“He’s been a game-changer for us,” she remarked.

Saenz’s support of the program draws from his own experience as a former international student from Peru. He attended MMC in the early 2010s as a soccer player.

“I never felt like an international student,” he said. “Mount Marty did a really good job making me feel welcome here.”

He remained in the area following his graduation in 2012, acting as an assistant soccer coach last year. Following his transition to head soccer coach, he brought the idea of recruiting more international students to school administrators, including MMC President Dr. Marc Long and MMC Athletics Director Chris Kassin.

“One of Mount Marty’s core values is hospitality, so they knew the potential of bringing these students in,” he said.

After getting approval to move forward, Saenz estimates he reached out to more than 1,000 potential students in the hopes of bringing in more students for the college’s athletics program.

“Ashley (Dimmer, associate director of admissions) told me I had to contact that many people and that I’d get maybe 3 percent of them,” Saenz recalled.

Though he is arguably the face of this recruitment effort, Saenz made it clear that bringing in these students was a group effort.

“Everyone from the president to admissions to the athletics department made it happen,” he said. “I was just the connection (to it) and they embraced and supported that. Myself and the students are thankful for that.”

He added that recruiting students is only part of the process. Another important factor is making the students, particularly those from other countries, feel welcome and able to adapt to the area.

Connecting the international students to the community was the idea everyone agreed on, Saenz said, adding that the results have been positive thus far.

“It’s been great for (the students) to feel like they have an American family who care about them and want to learn from them,” he said.

The Press & Dakotan spoke with three international students and their welcome families to see what their experiences have been since they arrived at MMC.

Gabriel Ivlev, Spain

Born in Moldova and raised in Spain, Ivlev decided he wanted to attend school in America in order to study in college and be an athlete. He spent two years playing soccer at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, earning an associate’s degree in business. Upon graduation, he chose to come to MMC to get his bachelor’s in business and continue playing soccer.

He said that MMC is a much smaller school than Indian Hills, but feels more familiar.

“You have a lot of people looking out for you,” he remarked.

One of those people is Moser herself, who decided to sign her family up as a welcome family after learning that MMC employees could also be a part of the program.

“My sister hosts an international student in high school, so I thought it’d be a great experience,” she said.

She has invited Ivlev over to her home for dinner with her family — husband Brad and kids Quentin and Patyon — and occasionally cooks for Ivlev and his teammates in their shared home.

“I feel like I almost adopted an entire house,” she remarked.

She noted that her children are currently studying Spanish in their respective schools and that Ivlev’s presence has been beneficial for them.

“Not many of us have had the opportunity to travel with our kids internationally,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for (my children) to meet someone from another country and learn about their culture.”

Ivlev noted the lifestyles of people in the U.S. and Spain are completely opposite.

“In Spain, they follow the Mediterranean diet — which is healthier than American food — and are very laid back and take things at their own time,” he said. “People in America wake up, go to work and follow a strict schedule. They also like big stuff, like big trucks and big houses.”

He said he’s also still adapting to the cold temperatures that come with Midwestern winters.

From the MMC perspective, having this many international students at one time has been a learning curve, Moser said.

“A great situation of being on the college campus is having the opportunity to learn from our students and the different experiences they bring with them,” she said.

Ivlev agrees.

“For the teams, they bring a lot more talent, which can turn the team into a very competitive one,” he said. “I’d say, bring more international students.”

Juan Duarte, Colombia

Duarte’s Benedictine high school has connections to Benedictine institutes in the United States, which helped him learn about MMC and influenced his decision to come here to start off his college career. A basketball player studying business management, Duarte was paired with Yankton couple Kate and Mason Schramm as his welcome family.

Like him, the Schramms have experienced being far from home.

“When we moved to West Virginia after college, there were several individuals that took us in as if we were their family and helped us get comfortable in our new home,” Kate said. “Since then, we always said that if there was an opportunity for us to do that for somebody else, we needed to take that and pay forward the love and kindness we had been shown.”

During their first meeting, Duarte recalled the Schramms taking him to Willa B’s for breakfast, walking the Meridian Bridge and visiting the farmer’s market.

“We wanted to take advantage of the nice weather and show off the more beautiful sites of Yankton,” Kate explained.

The Schramms have had Duarte over for game nights and have become acquainted with his parents through Facebook messenger.

“We hope to see them sometime and they want to come visit,” Mason said. “We’ve created another extended family with them.”

Duarte has shared with them his experiences of growing up in Bogota, a city with a population of 8 million.

However, he said he is adapting to life in Yankton well.

“The open space here is good, and it’s a peaceful environment,” he said.

By the time basketball season starts, Kate will have given birth to the couple’s first child. However, they won’t let that deter them from attending Duarte’s sporting events.

“We’re going to wear Mount Marty gear and have noise-canceling headphones so we can bring the baby,” Kate said.

Duarte said having this type of familial element has helped with his transition to Yankton.

“We international students need that feeling of home away from home,” he said.

Irakoze Mugenzi, Ontario, Canada

A junior soccer player majoring in exercise science, Mugenzi first came to the United States to attend Eastern Oklahoma State College, from which he received an associate’s degree. Wanting to further his education and continue playing soccer elsewhere, he received an offer from MMC.

“I thought the offer was not only great, but also what Mount Marty stood for as a school,” he said, noting he was drawn to its religious values and goals.

“Everything was a check-mark — a great small town, a great community and Coach Carlos did a great job informing me of everything I needed to know,” he said.

His welcome family, Wayne and Marge Kindle, were interested in acting as a welcome family due to their previous experience with international students.

“Several years ago while serving as principal at Yankton Middle School, we did an exchange with students and staff from Costa Rica, as well as hosted students and staff from Japan,” Wayne said. “Both of these were wonderful experiences for our family and students here in Yankton.  My wife, Marge, and I felt the same about this opportunity.”

Mugenzi said he and his girlfriend, Alexandria, have both been made to feel welcome by the Kindles.

“They’ve been amazing,” he said. “They’ve had dinner with us, taken us to the (Yankton High School) homecoming football game — which was an amazing sight to see — and helped me get stuff for the house I live in with my teammates.”

The Kindles have also attended Mugenzi’s soccer games and assisted him with the smaller details of settling into a new community, such as finding a place to get a haircut.

“Any questions we have, they’re there to answer them,” Mugenzi remarked.

Wayne said acting as a surrogate family for both Mugenzi and Alexandria has been an enjoyable experience.

“Honestly, we consider ourselves fortunate to have both Koze and Alexandria,” he said. “In this short amount of time we have known them, they have become family to us. It may be that they won’t be able to make it home for Thanksgiving, so we will have two more joining us, and that is a Thanksgiving blessing to our family.”

He encourages others in the community to consider acting as welcome families for future international students.

“There are many rewards in getting to know our young people from other countries and in our own country,” Wayne said. “You get to hear a lot of great perspective, learn about other cultures and, in our case, pass along an experience to our grandchildren that in turn we hope fosters unity and peace for other generations.”

Follow @ReillyBiel on Twitter.

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