Internationals face anxieties over winter break housing

Winter break is a time that most students at the College look forward to with excitement. Finals behind them, the majority of those living on campus return home to spend the holidays relaxing with family and friends and escaping the anxieties of college life. For international students, however, winter break can sometimes be quite the opposite.
“Right now I just called my parents back home and asked them to see if they can find any contacts in the U.S. – an old friend or distant family member who I can stay with for two weeks during the break,” said Adnan Khan ’12, who is from Pakistan. “For now they haven’t been able to find anything, and I don’t think they will.”

Khan’s case is not unique: Many international students – especially those receiving financial aid – find it financially or logistically difficult to return to their home countries for winter break and, since the College requires all students to vacate their rooms between the end of fall finals and the beginning of Winter Study, they must find elsewhere to stay for this two-week period. According to Gina Coleman, associate dean for international students, students who cannot go home have the options of either staying with friends or family in the United States or, alternatively, applying for accommodation through Christmas International House (CIH), a program organized by the Presbyterian Church that places students with host families or in church and civic center dormitories.

Coleman said that she begins sending reminders about the winter break shutdown to international students before the fall and continues sending e-mails throughout the semester reminding students that they must find their own accommodations. “We don’t bear responsibility over winter break,” she said. “My responsibility is to remind students that the campus is shut down over winter break and to inform them of their options.”

Coleman emphasized that while she can offer advice and guidance to international students, the College has many other students who face hardships over the break as well – such as those receiving financial aid who live on the West Coast – and cannot treat international students much differently. According to Paul Boyer, director of financial aid, international students qualifying for aid do receive maintenance allowances for both winter and spring breaks of $225; students receive no extra allowances for travel or housing fees.

“They’ve been sending lots of e-mails about the Christmas International House and have been very good about making sure we have someplace to stay and are not leaving us astray,” said Omar Khalayleh ’13, who is from Jordan.

According to some other international students, however, the winter break options provided by the College can place them in uncomfortable positions. In interviews, students said that asking their peers to host them over the break can be awkward, especially for first-years who may still lack strong friendships.

As for CIH, international student opinions were mixed. While a few students reported positive experiences with the program, others said that staying with an unfamiliar family or in a church, often in another state, was uncomfortable. Some expressed cultural concerns with the program, whose Web site describes it as “a Christian ministry designed to offer hospitality to students during the Christmas Holidays.” CIH does in fact welcome students of all faiths, stating on its Web site that “[students] will be invited to attend Christmas services and celebrations, but religious conversion is not part of the CIH program.”

“Asking people for a place to stay is really difficult, because unless you’re comfortable and free with someone then it’s tough,” said James Mathenge ’12, who lives in Kenya and is co-president of the International Club. “I would say it’s definitely more difficult for first-years since a few months is not that long a period to get to that level of comfort to ask, ‘Can I come with you for the break?’ Unless that offer is made from the other side, international kids would have a tough time doing so.”

According to Olga Kondratjeva ’10, who is from Lithuania and participated in CIH programs in Atlanta, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla., during her first two years at the College and plans to do so again this winter break, the program gave her a chance to experience American family life and to visit parts of the country she would not otherwise have seen. “It was a very big issue for me when I was a freshman and when I had to face this,” she said, describing her anxiety over living with strangers. “If I had the option I would have stayed at Williams, but looking back I am glad I had the experience that I did.”

For Khan, his concerns with CIH are largely financial, though he also said that he was concerned about “living with random people for two weeks.” He must apply soon if he wants to get a housing placement, but if he eventually finds a family or friend to stay with then his $90 registration fee will not be refunded. Khan also cited the cost of traveling to his accommodations as a deterrent from participating in the program.

Additionally, housing with CIH is not guaranteed. Although an average of nine students from the College participated in the program each year between 2002 and 2008, a limited number of available spaces means that the students who apply can potentially find themselves without accommodation in the last days before the break.

“I didn’t have enough money to go home [my first year] so I applied for the Christmas program,” said Cristina Florea ’10, who is from Romania. “I found out at the last minute that I didn’t get in, so I had to find another place to stay.” Florea said that she ended up staying with one of her professors – an alternative that, according to Coleman, others have resorted to in the past as well. “If I hear of someone who needs a house-sitter or has offered to host a student, I certainly pass it on,” Coleman said. Some international students also stay with their local host parents, though accommodating students over the break is not mandatory.

For Florea, however, staying with professors or other community members is still not a perfect solution. “There are a lot of wonderful people like that, who have helped me immensely throughout my stay here,” she said. “But the College should probably not burden them with the responsibility of compensating for all institutional imperfections.”

Faraidoon Nayebkhill ’10, who lives in Afghanistan, said that he brought international students’ concerns up with the Dean’s Office during the 2007-2008 academic year, when he was co-president of the International Club. According to Nayebkhill, he suggested that the College open a dorm for international students who wished to stay on campus over the winter break. Though the request was turned down at the time, Nayebkhill still hopes that it might be a possibility. “Leaving a dorm open would make the students a lot happier who could not go anywhere else in the U.S. due to financial difficulty or lack of friends or family in the country,” he said.

According to Douglas Onyango ’11, the International Club also approached Coleman last year about changing the winter break policy to give international students space to stay on campus. She referred the students to Facilities, but Onyango said that they did not pursue the issue further since they were focused on other problems at the time, such as peer mentoring and advising. “I have no control over the fact that students can’t stay here over winter break, so I’m trying to help them with the resources I have at my disposal,” Coleman said.

While students at the Center for Developmental Economics (CDE) can stay in their dorms at St. Anthony’s Hall over winter break and some sports teams return to campus a few days early for games and training, other students – including those from overseas – have never been allowed to stay on campus over the break. Many peer institutions have similar policies, though some, such as Amherst and Middlebury, allow exceptions for students in special circumstances who wish to remain on campus. The College, along with institutions such as Harvard and Swarthmore, says it makes no exceptions to its policies. Still, two co-op houses, Susie Hopkins and Doughty, are currently used by the College to house a small number of students over breaks in emergency situations because they have independent sources of heating and full kitchens.

While many international students remain hopeful that space on campus will be available to international students during winter break in the future, their options at present remain uncertain.