It was an exhausting two-day trip from her home in Chendu, China, to Lexington, where Tianjiao Yang will become a nursing student at the University of Kentucky.
But when Yang arrived Sunday at Blue Grass Airport, Judy Phillips was there to greet her and take her to her dormitory. And she didn't need to worry about dinner.
That's because Phillips and other volunteers from UK's International Hospitality Program, along with the Lexington Rotary Club, had put on a huge picnic spread to welcome Yang and more than 100 other new international students.
A long table on one side of the E.S. Good Barn, where UK's College of Agriculture has its offices, was loaded with hamburgers, brats, side dishes and all of the trimmings. Outside, for the few who dared to brave the heat and humidity, there were cornhole boards and written instructions on how to play.
Mostly, though, there were a lot of smiling faces to welcome Yang and her fellow students from 24 nations to their new Kentucky home.
"I was a little nervous, but American people are very friendly," Yang said only a few hours into her first day on this side of the world. "Judy is very kind. She helped me a lot."
The program has been making the transition to American life a little easier for UK's new international students for more than four decades.
Later this week, as they did last week, volunteers will take students shopping for everyday necessities they couldn't bring with them. This fall, a square dance is planned to introduce them to traditional Kentucky culture.
And for students who want one, there is a host or host family who has agreed to spend some time with them off campus once a month — invite them to their home for dinner, or take them on a family outing.
Hosts also are only a phone call away for seemingly simple questions that can baffle someone fresh from another culture, such as how to open a bank account, get a driver's license or figure out what size sheets to buy for their unfamiliar American bed.
The transition usually isn't difficult for students from Australia, Western Europe and other places with cultures similar to that of the United States. But it can be daunting for some students from Africa, Asia and parts of Eastern Europe.
Yang was one of several students getting airport pickup service this year from Phillips, who is in her 19th year as an IHP volunteer and host.
"It's really a great program in that you can have a relationship with an exchange student, but they don't live in your home and you don't have a financial commitment," said Phillips, who over the years has traveled to Poland, Egypt and Dubai to visit exchange students she once hosted. "They become like your own kids. I have thoroughly enjoyed it."
Stephanie Hong, executive director of the city's Partners for Youth program, has served for many years as an IHP board member and host because she remembers how important it was for someone to show her around when she arrived from Taiwan to become an undergraduate at Eastern Kentucky University.
She often takes students to a pumpkin patch before Halloween, to a Thanksgiving dinner and to see Christmas lights to help explain American culture. "It's a one-year commitment for the host family, but it often becomes a lifelong friendship," said Hong, who once traveled to India to attend a former exchange student's wedding.
"We're always looking for more host families," said Karen Slaymaker, assistant director of UK's international affairs office, who oversees the program. People interested in becoming hosts or volunteers may call her for more information at (859) 257-4067, Ext. 237, or go to the Web site, www.uky.edu/IntlAffairs.
UK usually has about 300 international students from as many as 100 nations at any given time, from teenage undergraduates to post-doctoral students.
"They're all somebody's children," said Pat Bond, assistant dean of UK's graduate school and chair of the International Hospitality Program. "They're courageous to be doing this in the first place, coming to a new country and culture. Just little acts of kindness mean so much to these kids."