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July 23, 2014

 Friendship Family and Cultural Exchange Program

By: V. Renee Russell
Global Education Office
(804) 828-3636

RICHMOND, Va (July 23, 2014)—Residents of the Richmond area don’t have to travel far to develop friendships with people from around the world. The Virginia Commonwealth University Friendship Family and Cultural Exchange Program, offered through the Global Education Office, provides community members and VCU international students the opportunity to meet and develop cross-cultural relationships.

For VCU Technology Services IT analyst Connie Lowery Whetstine, these friendships have grown into family.

When Connie and her husband, Mark, who live in Midlothian, Virginia, enrolled in the program in 2009 they specifically requested to be matched with two students from China. “We have two daughters from China and we wanted them to learn about their home country, experience Chinese culture and have relationships with people from there,” Connie said.

That year, the Whetstines were matched with Lige (Pigeon) Lu from Guangzhou who had just begun in the VCU English Language Program, and Lin Chai fromBeijing, then enrolled as a master’s student at VCU Brandcenter.

Five years later, the Whetstine’s friendship family has grown into a sprawling ensemble that includes the  Brandcenter alumnus now living in Shanghai, a senior who is double-majoring in graphic and fashion design, her husband and a first-year graduate student, Joyce Sun, who is just starting at VCU—plus their roommates, friends and parents who make periodic visits to the US.

“For us, it was about building a community,” Connie said. “When we learned about the program, we felt it would be a good fit for us. Then, once we met the Pigeon and Lin, they just became a part of our family.”

The Whetstines knew early on that the program would not only greatly impact their lives and those of their daughters, but also the students they hosted. “This program is so important because international students are here by themselves,” Connie said. “They just want to have a family. They want to speak English and to experience how we live here in the US.”

Pigeon echoed this sentiment. “When I first arrived at VCU, I felt very lonely, especially since I didn’t know a lot of people and I didn’t have any transportation,” she said. “I was really frustrated so I went to the Global Education Office and signed up for the program. Later on, Connie contacted me, and that changed everything.”

Pigeon returns to China about twice a year, and plans to remain in the US after graduating.

Through the program, Pigeon feels that she has received an authentic look at life in America. “I’ve learned so much about American culture that I couldn’t learn in a classroom,” she said. “Before, I couldn’t really see the everyday life of Americans - how they eat, what activities they do, how it compares it to my own family. My friendship family has shown me that.”

What exactly constitutes an authentic American lifestyle? According to Connie, it’s just the simple things we do every day. “Our students would go with us to our girls’ soccer games and initially we did things like visiting Maymont Park,” she said. “It’s just a matter of including them in your normal daily activities—having them over for dinner, taking them along to a Flying Squirrels game, out to walk the dog—just normal things like that.”

“Probably the best times we’ve had have been simply hanging out at our house,” she said.

For Pigeon, her friendship family has become a pillar in her experience at VCU. “It’s nice to have friends, but they graduate and move away,” she said. “My family has been one of the most consistent things in my life here. On holidays—or at any time, really—I don’t feel I’m alone anymore. I have a place to go.”

“These international students are brave,” Connie added. “Coming to another country to study is huge. They have so much to offer any family and we have so much to offer them.”

For information about the Friendship Family and Cultural Exchange Program, visit or contact Elizabeth Hiett at

 Friendship Family and Cultural Exchange Program
L to R: Connie Whetstine, Mark Whetstine, Pigeon Lu, Cassidy Whetstine, Cara Lowery, Lin Chai, Qiu (mother of Lin).

 Friendship Family and Cultural Exchange Program‌For the Whetstines, being a friendship family is simply about including international students in everyday activities, such as family dinners.