It Starts with a Ride from the Airport

Posted on June 6, 2024 by Marketing and Communications
Marketing and Communications

Jim and Mary Mather data-lightbox='featured'

Jim and Mary offering airport rides illustrationFor More Than 25 Years

Jim and Mary Mather have welcomed students from around the globe through the Friends of Internationals —sometimes right after their plane lands.

JIM AND MARY MATHER FIRST read about the University of South Alabama in a Pakistani news magazine. It was 1995. They were missionaries in Pakistan, where Jim worked as a nurse in a small hospital, but had started thinking about returning to America.

The magazine story named South as one of the most popular universities for students from South Asia. The next year, the Mathers made their first visit to Mobile. They met a pair of young pastors who had started a ministry called Friends of Internationals, but were planning to leave Alabama and looking for someone to continue their work.

The Mathers took a leap of faith and made a two-year commitment to the organization. That was in 1998. Over the last quarter-century, they’ve welcomed thousands of international students to Mobile.
“In our first seven years, we had 10,000 kids in our home,” says Jim Mather. “Not just in the house, but for a meal.”

The Mathers live in a brick ranch home across University Boulevard from the South campus. The kitchen has been expanded to contain two stoves, and a den stretches across the rear of the house.

Everyone calls it the “big room.” Banners with flags from more than 100 nations hang from the ceiling. Paintings and tapestries originating everywhere from Haiti to Kenya and Korea to Japan decorate the walls. A pingpong table gets pushed to the side for prayer meetings and potluck suppers.

Mary Mather, who was a physical therapist before becoming a missionary, sees foreign students battle homesickness, language barriers and culture shock. With a little help, they find their way.

The Mathers often meet students at the airport or during their first day on campus. They help make living arrangements, offer rides around town and try to solve problems.

“You are not alone,” Mary tells newcomers. “There are other students and other families here who can help you. There are resources on campus as well.”

Curry, Lasagna, and Taco Soup

In January, at the beginning of the spring semester, Friends of Internationals hosted more than 70 students at a welcome dinner in the Terrace Room at the Student Center.

There were students from Asia, Africa and Europe, along with North and South America. The potluck menu featured everything from chicken curry and homemade biryani to red beans and taco soup, along with fried chicken and mac and cheese.

At the check-in desk, students stuck flag decals on their name tags. Oluwagbenro Adesunloro, a Ph.D. student from Nigeria, heard about Friends from advisers in the Global USA office.

“They helped with a ride from the airport,” he says. “And they helped me find a place to stay until my apartment became available. Since then, I’ve been involved with the program.”

Adesunloro teases Brusi Kola, another Ph.D. student, as he pages through a booklet of flag decals: “You’re the only one from Albania!”

Kola, like so many Friends, has his own Jim-and-Mary story.

“They invited me to their house for dinner just after I got here,” he says. “I was a little skeptical at first — you know, who are these people? — but it was OK. I told them I liked Italian food, so Mary cooked lasagna for me.”

The Friends community has always drawn plenty of foreign athletes at South. The Mathers are runners and sports fans who cheer for the Jaguar athletes they know.

Adele Magaud, a French cross country runner, struggled to speak English when she enrolled at South in 2019. It took months for her to be able to carry on a conversation.

She heard about Friends of Internationals from a Norwegian athlete and met the Mathers on her second day in Mobile. After a few years at South, she and some friends began renting a house near the Mathers.

“They were the most warm and welcoming people,” says Magaud, now a graduate student at Northwestern University.
“They definitely changed my experience and made it so easy to be in the U.S.”

Relationship Building

Dr. Tara Davis, graduate coordinator for audiology at South, is the faculty adviser for Friends of Internationals. She met the Mathers soon after moving to Mobile in 2010.

“I’ve learned so much from them over the years, and that’s an understatement,” Davis says. “I’ve never been around people who are so passionate about reaching international students. It’s very much a priority in their lives.

“Jim often talks about the importance of building relationships with people. That drives everything they do. They don’t see students as a project. They help them feel that Mobile and South are home, or a home away from home where they can feel comfortable.

“They’re very giving, very hospitable people. It’s not a front or something they give lip service to. They live and breathe by building and keeping relationships with others.”

Richard Bennyson, an Airbus engineer in Mobile, got to know his wife, Nivi, at Friends events. When they got married a few years later, Jim Mather was the officiant at their wedding in Daphne.

“Most of the people there were people we knew through Friends of Internationals,” Bennyson says, laughing. “There was a flash mob of people dancing to the song ‘Jai Ho’ from the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’”

He remembers earning his master’s degree from South in 2006 and having 60 days to find a job before his visa ran out. Finally, on day 59, he landed an engineering position.

Through it all, the Mathers were there. He was always welcome in their home. “It was like a refuge when things were all over the place for me,” he says.

The Bennysons, who have two children, remain active with Friends of Internationals. Now they’re meeting young international students, offering assistance, continuing the work of the Mathers.

“They’re like our parents here,” Bennyson says. “We’ve been with them all of these years because they opened their hearts to us.”

L.A.  — Lower Alabama

Mary Mather grew up on Long Island, New York. Jim Mather is a Navy veteran from Philadelphia. They met at a religious retreat in Pennsylvania.

They wanted to become overseas missionaries and help people. After getting married, they spent months training and
learning a new language, Urdu, then went to Pakistan for five years.

In Mobile, they’ve raised their own three children while developing an extended family that circles the globe.

Some foreign students at South are surprised that Mobile isn’t more like Los Angeles or New York City — the America they know from pop culture. This is why Jim Mather believes it’s important to reach students right away.

“The key to success for international students is they need to bond early on,” he says. “Academics is a small part — a vital part — of the experience, but it’s not just going to school. It’s getting involved in the community. Do they feel welcome? Do they feel wanted? That’s what people need.”

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