CORVALLIS - Thirty years ago this month, a handful of Corvallis residents started a fledgling organization called Crossroads, a community-based volunteer group designed to ease the transition of international students to Oregon State University and the surrounding area.

Eventually, it merged with Friendship Internationale, a program to welcome the wives of international students .

Today, three decades later, Crossroads International has blossomed into one of the most successful programs of its kind in the country. The volunteer-minded residents of the Corvallis area and the strong International Education program at the university have been a perfect marriage.

"The program is one of the most diverse anywhere," said Susan Schwartz, executive director of Crossroads International. "There is a greater variety of activities here than you will find at most other universities."

When international students arrive in Corvallis, they are offered three-day home stays with community volunteers, who show them around town, take them on outings, and familiarize them with life in Oregon. A conversational program matches volunteers with students who need practice speaking English; they get together and talk once a week. A Spanish conversation group also meets regularly.

"Friendship Homes" include students in everyday family activities throughout the year. The Crossroads Conversation School offers six levels of conversational English to help international women make friends and learn about the Corvallis community. Then there are activities for visiting scholars, a winter party, a spring picnic, orientations, field trips, holiday gatherings and more.

In 1978, the McCauley Memorial Fund was established to help international students with emergency grants and loans during one-time emergency situations.

"Our international student enrollment at OSU depends greatly on the economic and political stability of countries," Schwartz said. "In 1981, for example, our leading country for international students was Iran. We only had a handful of scholars from China. During most of the 1980s and 1990s, the top countries of origin for OSU students have included China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia and Japan. Since 1988, Indonesia has sent the largest number of students to OSU.

"When the economies of countries falter, or there is some kind of political strife, the work of our volunteers has been invaluable," she added.

"We won't ever know the extent of what community volunteers do for these students because so much of it is one-on-one. But a lot of international students wouldn't have made it without the support of Crossroads volunteers." The program received OSU's Distinguished Service Award in 1985.

Schwartz said about half of the volunteers are affiliated with the university; the rest come from elsewhere in the community. Some have traveled abroad, she said, but many have not and "live vicariously through the students," sharing their experiences and hearing about their culture.

The program is rewarding for the volunteers, as well.

Julia Gray has been hosting international students for 20 years. Now 88 years old, she still gets together every Friday with a young Taiwanese woman whose husband is pursuing a Ph.D. at OSU.

"Often, it's been the wives of students getting advanced degrees who I meet with," Gray said. "Their English is really quite good, but they just like to get together and talk - about their families or their countries. They always bring pictures.

"They like to see how an old lady manages," she said with a laugh. "We'll shop together, and cook. It's really a wonderful experience; I'd encourage anyone to do it."

Another Crossroads volunteer, Lucy Noone, echoed Gray's comments.

"Hosting international students every fall has meant that my four children have grown up with a greater sense of the universality of the human experience," Noone said. "Our students have been handsome and plain, charismatic and painfully withdrawn, exhaustingly energetic and tearfully homesick. Some of the students struggle to buy rice; one immediately bought a new car."

For Betty McCauley, it was a case of turnabout being fair play.

"Hosting international students at OSU gave us opportunities to return the favors of those who were good to our daughter when she was overseas," said McCauley, who has hosted students from Cameroon. "I also was very touched when my husband died and African students gave us flowers, came to the memorial service, and brought our family an African meal to show sympathy."

Many students remain in contact with their Corvallis hosts and the OSU staff who work with Crossroads International. They, too, speak glowingly of the program celebrating its 30th anniversary.

"My experience with Crossroads began when I arrived at OSU not knowing anyone and barely able to speak English," said Giovanna Aleman, of Honduras. "In the summer of 1988, I got a host family and a friend in a faraway land (that) helped me feel less lonely. They filled a lot of my weekends and holidays. It's been 10 years and we are still in touch with each other and I know that our friendship will last forever.

"Having a host family in the U.S. made my own family in Honduras feel a lot better because they knew that there was somebody in Oregon looking after me."

Since 1969, more than, 4,000 international students have been hosted by volunteers through Crossroads International. For more information on the program, call 541-737-3006.

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Susan Schwartz, 541-737-6480