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Alone in a foreign country with no pillow

Imagine you have just left your family and friends and spent the last 24 hours on an airplane. You are about to attend college halfway around the world, in a culture you have never experienced before. You step off the airplane, and then you travel several more miles to your new home: a commuter campus in a small rural Pennsylvania town.

This is your new bedroom.

During my first semester working with the CCO at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, I had a memorable conversation with a student from China. She told me a story about her first few weeks in the U.S. What I remember the most is how long it took her to purchase a pillow.

For the first few weeks of her time here, she used a pile of her clothing as a pillow. Multiple times during the night, the clothing would slip out from under her head, making it difficult for her to sleep through the night. 

Having done international travel myself, I know how hard transitioning to a new country can be. And I know that no one going overseas for any length of time uses precious luggage space to pack a nice big fluffy pillow. I decided that day that I didn't want another Penn State Fayette student to have to experience that. 

That conversation gave birth to the idea of preparing the rooms of incoming international students with a few items to make them feel comfortable and welcome. I worked with the manager of the apartment building where these students would live and recruited volunteers from local churches to work with me and local students to make this happen. I never imagined how much of a blessing this would be to all of us.

Thinking about international travel, I concluded two things. When you finally get to your destination, you want nothing more than to get clean and to sleep. 

So we provide a shower curtain and rings, a bar of soap, a wash cloth and towel, a simple bed sheet set—and a pillow. We hang the shower curtain and we make the bed so that the student can simply get clean and rest. We also provide bottles of water, snacks, and a couple of local restaurant delivery menus.  

I include a welcome note with my picture and tell them about English Corner, our regular monthly gatherings with international students where we help them learn the language and other aspects of American culture. I list the dates for these meetings and for our other activities, and I invite them to join us. 

This project would not happen without the generosity of so many community members who donate sheet sets, shower curtains, rings, soap, towels, and more. I couldn't prepare the rooms as quickly as we now do without the many volunteers who come out to make beds and hang shower curtains. And it has been a great opportunity to partner with Penn State Fayette. The campus has been appreciative of this expression of care to students and they have invited me in to participate in their services to international students. 

When I hear the students’ expressions of gratitude and see the connections made through these simple gifts of hospitality, it continues to be a blessing to them and to us.

—Gwen Shoaf ministers to students at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus through a partnership with the Fayette Campus Ministry Council.