CASA connects international students and community

February 23, 2016
Andrew and Donita Cartmill with Sharefah Alhobaidaa

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — When Dr. Andrew Cartmill, assistant professor of soil and crop science at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, moved from Liverpool, Great Britain to Texas to pursue his master’s and doctorate degrees at Texas A&M University, he found that the challenge of acclimating to his new surroundings was made easier by the kindness of others. Now, he and his wife, Dr. Donita Cartmill, associate professor of environmental horticulture, have found the chance to offer similar experiences to other international students through UW-Platteville’s Community Ambassadors for Students from Abroad Program.

“I know what it’s like to be on the other side,” said Andrew. “I’ve had people welcome me into their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I realize it’s very important to have that go-to point – and not just from the academic standpoint – but people who can talk to you about how things are different, and offer a little family interaction.”

Launched in the fall of 2013, the CASA Program pairs local community members in the Platteville area with international students, encouraging the hosts to include students in anything from normal daily activities – such as cooking meals, going out for coffee or birthday celebrations – to exploring the tri-state area together, participating in the local culture, attending sporting games, or organizing outdoor activities. Ambassadors and students are encouraged to get together at least once a month, but can meet more frequently if schedules allow.

In the short time the CASA program has existed, more than 150 students – representing more than 20 countries – have been paired with community ambassadors.

The Cartmills have hosted students from Brazil, Kuwait and China. They have involved students in a variety of activities from the common – shopping and going out to dinner – to the less typical – canoeing, ice skating and visiting the historic landmark House on the Rock, which was a first-time experience for all of them.

The Cartmills agreed the program offers a quick way to help international students gain more insight into local culture. “In talking with people who have studied abroad, it seems they find it easier to interact with other groups who are not from here, as opposed to groups who are from here, so I think the program offers a way to link the two,” said Donita.

Sharefah Alhobaidaa, a student from Kuwait, is studying electrical engineering and is paired with the Cartmills. “I found [the CASA Program] is really good,” said Alhobaidaa. “It helps international students communicate with native speakers and know their culture.”

Christine Wunderlin, program assistant for Students with Disabilities at UW-Platteville, is in her second year participating in the CASA program. Wunderlin is originally from Frankfurt, Germany, which she said sparked her interest in participating in the program. “Having international people around was something I was really missing, and I thought what a great way to actually host someone and have them get insight into culture here, and on the other hand, have my family and grandchildren get exposure to people from other cultures,” she said.

Wunderlin and her family took a student they were partnered with last year to local sporting events, and even a bull riding competition.

Mohammed Alhoshan, a student from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is currently partnered with Wunderlin and her family. Alhoshan, who is studying general engineering, said that he would recommend the program to other international students. “You are going to feel homesick, and you need to be able to speak to other people,” said Alhoshan.

Both Wunderlin and the Cartmills agreed that, as hosts, they get just as much enrichment from the program as the students do, as they have a chance to learn about other cultures.

“I do wish that there would be more people in the community [outside of the university] who would participate,” said Wunderlin, noting that this is a great alternative for someone who doesn’t have the space in their house or commitment to host a high school student from abroad for an entire semester. “This program is wonderful because we still get that same experience. It’s fun to get to know other people, understand their culture and expose them to our culture, and go places you may not go otherwise.”

For more information about the CASA program, visit

Written by: Alison Parkins, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, 608-342-1526,

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