International students have many options for Winter Break

Giovanna Rajao

International students make up nearly 12 percent of Iowa State’s total student body, and for many of these students, Winter Break is not defined as a time for them to return home to spend the holidays relaxing with family and friends and escaping the uneasiness of college life.

International student Drishti Kaul, a transfer sophomore in bioinformatics and computational biology, is remaining in Iowa.

Last Winter Break, Kaul and her sister Rachana, sophomore in electrical engineering, went back to their hometown of New Delhi, India, because it was their first year away from home.

This break, however, Kaul is still uncertain of where and with whom she will spend the holidays.

“As of now, I haven’t decided where I’ll be staying for Winter Break,” Kaul said. “To make matters worse, my residence hall closes for the Winter Break. I tried with some other dorms that stay open for the break, but it doesn’t seem to work out.”

She explains that her choice to not travel home was motivated “firstly, because its too expensive to go back home for just two weeks, and secondly because the weather in Ames is unpredictable.” Kaul said that last year, flights were canceled due to a huge thunderstorm, and she doesn’t want to experience a similar situation.

Along with not being able to go back to India anytime before the summer break, Kaul said she feels terrible about not being able to spend Christmas and New Year’s with her family.

“We’ve always celebrated it together, but this time we’ll have to think of something else,” Kaul said.

Christmas is celebrated widely across India, but its presence is most prevalent in the city of Goa because of the great influence of Christianity there. Christians in India decorate banana or mango trees instead of the traditional pine tree. For Indian Christians, the midnight mass on Christmas Eve is a very important service and holds great religious significance. Every year on Christmas Eve, people decorate their houses and churches with poinsettia flowers for the midnight mass.

In the Northwestern states of India, where Kaul is from, the tribal Christians of the Bhil people take caroling processions during the whole Christmas week and often visit neighboring villages to tell the Christmas story to people through songs.

The Indian New Year, like Christmas, is one of the most widely celebrated festivals all over the country. It is popularly known as the festival of Deepawali or Diwali, meaning the end of the previous year and the start of a new year. This festival is celebrated for five days as it marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year.

Kaul’s situation is not unique. Many international students find returning to their home countries for Winter Break financially and logistically difficult, especially those receiving financial aid.

Although there are exceptions, such as the Barnard College in New York, most colleges require all students to clear their rooms between the end of fall finals and the beginning of spring term, leaving international students with few options of where to reside for a two-week period.

At Iowa State, all residence halls except Linden, Buchanan, Wallace and Wilson halls close for Winter Break. Frederiksen Court and SUV apartments remain open.

Amanda Lee, junior in pre-business from Malaysia, said she won’t be going home for the winter or summer breaks.

“In fact, I won’t go back [to Malaysia] until I graduate,” Lee said.

Lee said she will most likely stay in Ames to experience snow — which she never has — though she might travel to Chicago and Kansas with her friends.

“I think it’s a must to travel around this huge country to explore the different types of culture in different states. It’s a huge country, after all,” Lee said.

On future Winter Breaks, Lee said, she plans to visit Las Vegas and spend New Year’s at Times Square in New York City, a dream of hers.

While Lee looks forward to experiencing the cooling weather, Yichun Ding, freshman in agricultural business, yearns to be away from the low temperatures of Iowa and of her country.

“My hometown [of Harbin, China] is extremely cold in the winter, so I prefer to go somewhere warmer than home,” Ding said.

Like Kaul, Ding believes flying home during the Winter Break is not worth the expense.

“The period is too short. I could use the time and money to travel to other places,” Ding said.

Ding will spend her break in Florida with friends.

Although Christmas is a much-celebrated holiday in Harbin, Ding feels apathetic about not spending it with her family.

“We talk through Skype, so I already feel like I’m around them,” Ding said.

Throughout her years as a student, Ding will never be able to spend New Year’s with her family due to how the New Year’s holiday is celebrated in China and in nearby nations.

Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. It consists of a period of celebrations starting on New Year’s Day. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival on the 15th day. Last year, Chinese New Year started Feb. 14, and in 2011, celebrations will start Feb. 3.

For Brazilian students like Lucas Mutti, junior in mechanical engineering, and Laura Ribeiro, senior in industrial engineering, going home for the break is a not debatable.

Mutti has been going home during Winter Breaks since his freshman year at Iowa State.

“I think it is worth it to spend every single cent to go back home, because family is the most important thing in your life,” Mutti said.

“I’ve returned home every winter and summer break since I started here,” said Ribeiro, senior in industrial engineering. “Brazil is not that far, and going back home is not troublesome.”

In addition to its proximity, Ribeiro acknowledges Christmas as an important date in Brazilian culture.

“It’s a time to fraternize with family,” Ribeiro said.

In Brazil, Christmas is one of the most meaningful dates. Having a multicultural population, the festivities in the country are influenced by ethnic traditions.

As a former Portuguese colony, Brazil has retained some of the Portuguese Christmas customs. Notable among these is creating a nativity scene, or presépio. The word presépio comes from “presepium,” meaning the bed of straw in which Jesus is said to have first slept after birth in Bethlehem. This custom is common in many of the states, including Rio de Janeiro, hometown of both Mutti and Ribeiro. Every December, presépios are created during Christmas and displayed in churches, houses and stores.

“The majority of Latino students that I know also return home for the holidays,” Ribeiro said.

Maritza Gonzalez, freshman in biology and psychology, is going back to Puerto Rico to spend two weeks with her family.

“The main purpose of me going back home in December is because it’s my first year here, so my parents wanted me to be there with them in Christmas. Also because I didn’t want to be here alone,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez plans, nonetheless, to spend her future two-week winter terms differently. “I’ll probably travel or stay around here,” Gonzalez said.

The International Students and Scholar’s Office provides international students with the option of spending the holidays in an American household. Christmas International house is a national program operated by the Presbyterian Church that enables international students and scholars who are on an “F” or “J” visa to explore the United States by visiting another state and staying with an American family or individual during the Christmas break.

The 2010 program runs from Dec. 18, 2010, to Jan. 2, 2011, although some of the program’s dates may be different in certain states. Most international students and scholars participating in the programs stay in American homes, but there are also group-housing situations, in which international students and scholars stay with other international students and scholars in a church, church camp or conference center.

The registration fee to apply to Christmas International House is $100 for singles —  or $125 for couples or families — for all applications postmarked before Nov. 1. After Oct. 31, a fee of $150 for singles — or $175 for couples or families — must accompany the application form. This fee will be refunded only if a student is not placed. The fee does not cover transportation to and from the host’s location. For most of the programs, the host provides housing and meals.