International students’ long distance family relationships



Zhe (Mia) Wang

Even with school work and a busy schedule, many college students still get to visit their family members several times each year during breaks. Some students only see their beloved parents or close relatives once a year, or as rarely as every four years.

Aithar Alfarsiah is from Oman and is a freshman studying software engineering. She came to Iowa State in 2016 through a government sponsored program. Since 2016, Alfarsiah has gone home three times, twice during summer breaks in 2016 and 2017, another time for winter break in 2018.

Alfarsiah said the tight time schedule and high expenses are two major difficulties for international students when it comes to going home to visit family.

“My home country is in [the] Middle East; I’m going to spend two days traveling,” Alfarsiah said. “The flight tickets are too expensive. Plus, I need to plan my trip ahead of time to get discount. My schoolwork is really heavy and I often didn’t think of going back home until the end of every semesters.”

Alfarsiah has a tight relationship with her family. She said she wasn’t thinking of being away from her family as much as the goals she wanted to accomplish when she decided to study abroad.

“I saw many Omani groups when I got to America, so I felt I was between my family,” Alfarsiah said. “However, my mom was so scared for me. She thought since I would be here alone, if something bad happened to me, she couldn’t help.”

When Alfarsiah was in Oman, her family would go to the beach on Fridays, to mark the beginning of the weekend. She said she has lost a lot of moments like that with her family.

“Sometimes the homesick[ness] really makes me sad,” Alfarsiah said. “If I think of it a lot I’m gonna cry, because I just can’t handle it.”

Another activity Alfarsiah misses the most is Ramadan, which is the holy month in Islamic culture. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The common practice during the Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Alfarsiah said the food after sunset was prepared by her family and they would gather together to have a family meal after the fast breaks. In Oman, the fast usually ends at 6 p.m., but the daytime in summer in Ames is much longer with the sunset happening around 9 p.m.

The fasting in America is harder and she has to do it alone.

“Spending Ramadan without my family is the hardest thing I’ve ever done since I came here,” Alfarsiah said.

Alfarsiah didn’t have any travel plans for spring break. She said school breaks usually make her sad because most of her friends were out of town and she starts to miss her family badly. So she focuses all her energy and attention on studying.

“When I’m busy, I don’t think of anything else,” Alfarsiah said. “Spending time with my friends and studying are my way to cope with the sadness.”

Nonetheless, Alfarsiah said studying abroad is positive overall because she can achieve her dream of being a software engineer and make friends from all over the world and help her family.

Alfarsiah has a brother who has autism. He is 7 years old. Alfarsiah said America has much better schools and facilities for children with autism.

“My mom and I often discuss how I can help him here,” Alfarsiah said. “I find out how American families deal with their autism kids and learn about that. I send the information to my mother.

“It really helped him develop. Last time we video chat[ted], he was talking already.”

Not every international student has the same experience when it comes to homesick and limited travelling opportunities.

Yingzhou Sun is from China and is studying finance. He hasn’t gone home for three years and will not be able to do so until May 2019.

Sun first started as a student in Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in 2015. He graduated in 2017 with an associate degree. From 2015 to 2017, Sun didn’t go home during any breaks.

“I didn’t go home for the first two years, because I thought it’s too much trouble,” Sun said. “I just got here and didn’t want to spend all the money and energy on the travelling.”

After graduation in December 2017, an international advisor at DMACC suggested he apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) which is a period for international students who have completed a degree to work for one year on student visas towards getting practical training to complement their education.

He took the advice and obtained the OPT successfully; however, the OPT put a one-year restriction on Sun traveling abroad, meaning he is not allowed to travel outside America from December 2017 to December 2018.

“I will go home for summer break in 2019. From August 2015 to May 2019, I feel like I’m trapped in United States,” Sun joked.

When Sun told his parents he is not able to go home and visit them until 2019, they were shocked and confused. Since Sun is their only child, they had a hard time processing the news.

“They just didn’t understand at first,” Sun said. “They questioned my choices and expressed their concerns a little bit, but eventually they said they support my decision.”

Sun spent the last several breaks with his friends and had good times. He said he is not the type of person who gets homesick very often.

“Maybe it’s because of the way I was raised,” said Sun. “My father is a stern and strict figure in my life. He gave me tough love most of the time and I was always independent, even when I was a child.”

Sun said he doesn’t go out often. Even during spring break, he said he will stay home and watch TV shows.

“I became a home person when I came to America,” Sun said. “All the crazy stuff I did back home seems so boring to me now.”

Spending time alone can change a person. For Sun, alone time helped him mature and think freely.

“In middle school and high school, I was a rebellious kid,” Sun said. “I would skip classes all the time to play online games with my friends. My parents were angry with me and the whole family atmosphere was just not positive. “

Sun said when he first arrived in the United States, he had to do everything by himself, including apartment hunting, getting school paperwork done and shopping for essentials. His English was not fluent yet and didn’t know anyone.

“I felt like I matured overnight,” said Sun.