Local families give Washington U. students a ‘home away from home’

View Content

CLAYTON • It’s a little bit of faith and a lot of matchmaking, with a baseball theme.

“How St. Louis is that?” jokes Risa Zwerling, the wife of Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton.

Zwerling, the longtime first lady of St. Louis’ largest research institution, runs a program called Home Plate. The premise is simple: Zwerling matches groups of students with area families who are willing to host the students for dinner a few times each year. The hope is for the St. Louis-area families to become the students’ “home away from home.”

When Zwerling’s daughter was an undergraduate student at Connecticut College in the early 2000s, one of her professors invited a group of students over for dinner.

“It turned her around and she became enthusiastic and felt better about being away from home,” Zwerling recalled. “I could see the change in her and it dawned on me that I can do that — I should just make that happen.”

So she did.

Fifteen years later, it’s still going strong with 200 students and 60 area families signing up for new matches this past fall. Through email and a dedicated Facebook page, Zwerling tries to keep up with families who maintain the relationships years down the road. But after the first year, continuing the match is up to the students and families.

At least one area family visited their student’s home in Asia on an overseas trip. Several families got so close that they were invited to students’ weddings. Others have traveled across the country together after graduation.

And for some, it resulted in mentorships and job opportunities.

Freshman Max Prince just met his host family this fall.

“I’ve gotten exactly what I wanted to, and even more,” said Prince, a native of New Jersey. He and a handful of other students met with their hosts, the Gage family of Clayton, three times this semester, each time celebrating a Jewish holiday or tradition.

“Going to my Home Plate family’s house for the holidays has been like home because what we do feels like what I would do when actually I’m home,” Prince said.

Amy Gage and her husband decided to sign up to give back to the school they’re both connected to — Amy as a former graduate student and her husband, Brian, as a professor in the university’s School of Medicine. The couple lives nearby with their high school-age daughter, so there’s also opportunity to introduce her to role models and the idea of college.

“We love being around young adults,” Amy Gage said. “They’re so interesting and smart. I swear we learn so much from them.”

She hosted Prince and other Washington U. students Friday night for a Hanukkah feast. Earlier in the semester, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah together, and had a special outing together where they learned how to bake authentic challah.

Zwerling tries to pair up families and students based on common interests, which often means faith. She advertises in area synagogues and churches, though most of the new families at this point have found Home Plate through word of mouth.

The program “is symbolic of my best strength,” she said.

“What I can do even if I only have two fingers is bring people together,” Zwerling said. She’s a New York native but has been in St. Louis for 40 years. She’s been Washington U.’s first lady for 23 of those years. “I have the good fortune of interfacing with a lot of people.”

She’s also taken the program on the road, producing a “how-to guide” for starting a similar program. She has presented it at conferences, but it has never caught on. A program such as this needs someone willing to champion it, she said.

Zwerling’s husband, Mark Wrighton, announced earlier this fall that he plans to retire as chancellorwithin the next few years. It’s not clear what that will mean for Home Plate. The couple plans to keep a home in Clayton after retirement.

“Sometimes I think, we’ve done this a long time and maybe it’s time to let it go. But we’ll see,” she said, quickly adding: “I’ll hang on as long as I can and find a way to make it work.”