When Luchy Binet came to the University of the District of Columbia four years ago from her native Dominican Republic, she thought she was prepared for life in a new country. She had taken English lessons and felt fairly comfortable with the new language. Her relatives had offered to pay for her education and to let her live with them in Northwest Washington.
"I thought I was fluent in English, but when I got here I found that I didn't understand 80 percent of the English I was hearing," said the 23-year-old Binet. "In the Dominican Republic, I was involved with church and social groups, but when I came here I knew no one" other than family.
Living with her aunt and uncle, Binet, a senior at UDC majoring in business management, said she rarely had the chance to speak with anyone her age. Six months after her arrival, she paged through the phone book in search of an organization for foreign students and found a listing for the Foreign Student Service Council.
The staff of the 31-year-old organization made its housing referral service available when she decided to move from her relatives' house. She pays no rent but exchanges her dog-walking and baby-sitting services for her room. The council invited her to meet other foreign students and Americans for weekly discussions in the renovated two floors of the Adams-Morgan town house that serves as the council's office.
Frances Bremer, Foreign Student Service Council director, estimated that her organization comes in contact with about 6,000 international students annually.
Bremer and student services director Claudia Godfrey emphasize the importance of personal contact with students.
"Many foreign students don't think Americans care. The primary concern of their schools is academic," Godfrey said. The Foreign Student Service Council has the time to deal with "major problems when the stedent needs help or guidance or coddling or whatever."
The council has only a brief encounter with many of the students, locating housing for those making quick visits to the nation's capital.
But the organization has two major programs to assist foreign students in making the transition to life in the United States, Bremer said. The International Leadership Workshops brings together foreign students and government officials and others involved in politics, communications, business and other areas that affect U.S. policies and concerns.
The other program is housing referral, which lists 500 families in the metropolitan area that charge little or no rent for students to stay in their homes, usually exchanging room and board for a service. The council estimates that 100 students a month go to the office to check for housing listings.
Also, the council sponsors social events and a speaker's bureau in which students describe their country's culture, politics and geography to area elementary and high school students.
Bremer said the council's programs encourage "global friendship in addition to the learning experience" of college. Living with American families, Bremer and Godfrey agree, allows students to get the personal, firsthand view of the American society and its people.
The council gets about one-third of its funding from the U.S.Information Agency, with that money earmarked for the leadership workshops and the cost of flying students to Washington. The rest of the council's funds come from donations, Bremer said.
Most colleges, universities and language schools in the area rely on the council to help the students find housing. Grace Ansah, assistant director of Howard University International Student Services, said many of the students whom she has referred to the home hospitality program have enjoyed the experience.
Godfrey and Ansah said that some students have asked why more minority families do not invite students into their homes.
"You don't have to be rich or famous" to host a family, Godfrey said. "You can live in a little apartment as long as you have an extra bed or you can just have someone for a meal."
The Foreign Student Service Council was begun in 1957 by Hugh Jenkins, then the director of a social organization for foreign students called the International Student House. In the post-World War II influx of international students to the States, Jenkins was concerned that any foreign student in the United States was "probably going to try to make his way to Washington before he goes home." Jenkins started to raise funds to start the council "so that these students didn't arrive and go to a rooming house or . . . hotel and have to find their way around."
Judy Summers of Silver Spring has opened her home to foreign visitors for about 25 years. "It's not a one-way street," she said. "I'm not patronizing these students by opening my home to them. We learn from each other."