Two countries, one home
The colorful Post-It notes began appearing on items around Shelby Jackson’s home a month ago, each square offering a Spanish translation. “I have ‘escritorio’ for my desk, ‘bocinas’ is my speakers, ‘ratόn’ is my [computer] mouse,” she says. “I’ve got them everywhere.”
The visual vocabulary lessons are Jackson’s idea and the handiwork of her new roommate, Isabel Barba, a Panamanian student enrolled in USI’s Intensive English Program (IEP). When the dangers of COVID-19 forced the University to move classes online and close most housing, Barba considered returning to her home country, but worried about exposing herself—or her family—to the disease. Though she could have stayed in her on-campus apartment, without her suitemate, Jackson’s offer of a spare bedroom sounded more appealing.
The pair met last fall through USI’s Host Friendship Program, which matches employees and international students. “I thought, well, we’ll just dip our toes in … since it’s not a homestay thing,” says Jackson ’15 M’19, Human Relations Generalist. “But then it turned into a homestay thing.”
While employees are never required or expected to house students, inviting Barba to temporarily move in was an “easy decision.” Jackson’s husband continues to go to work, so the two women keep each other—and the family’s pets—company. “Every time that she has her lunch break from class, she comes back here [to my office] and sees if I’m in the middle of work or if she can come say ‘hi’ to me,” Jackson says. “A lot of times in the evenings we’ll watch a movie, or we’ve played a couple of games. We like UNO.”
They’ve bonded over the frustration of internet outages and the joy of sharing new experiences, like Barba’s first bonfire, complete with s’mores. “It was really fun,” the future biology student says.
To brighten her quarantined birthday, Jackson even stretched her culinary skills to recreate Barba’s favorite dish. “She made tortillas, which is like a Panamanian breakfast [similar to corn cakes],” Barba explains. “She made that for me because I told her that whenever it’s my birthday, my mom, she always cooks for me.”
At a time when so many things are difficult, Jackson and Barba are enjoying the ease of their friendship, that’s now strengthening under the same roof. “You can talk with them, you can share your thoughts, you can share your problems,” says Barba. “I’m really grateful with them for having me here.”
“I think learning about different cultures is extremely important for everyone, the kind of relationships you build with people,” Jackson says. “We love having her around. We’re going to severely miss her when this is all over and she goes back to campus.”
By then, she may be able to take the Post-Its with her; Jackson’s Spanish is getting better every day.