On Dec. 21, the College will shut down for winter break, requiring all students to depart campus for alternate destinations.
For some international students, finding places to stay over the break has proved a challenge that has come to the attention of the campus in recent years. This year, the International Club is working to organize a Habitat for Humanity service trip to provide international students with another option.
In the past, international students who have been unable to return home have either participated in the Christmas International House (CIH), an organization that places students with Christian families across the country over the break, or have stayed with faculty and staff who voluntarily offer to house students during the two weeks. Last year, the International Club (IC) campaigned for the option of a house or dorm to be kept open for international students over the break. The movement was unsuccessful, and this year the club decided not to repeat the request.
There is some dissent between international students and the administration regarding the role of the College and the housing needs of the students.
“All international students know that there is no housing available on the Williams campus over this period,” said Gina Coleman,associate dean for international students. Dorms are closed for these two weeks to save utilities costs and allow for the renovations opportunities.
Coleman, who heads the international student orientation in the beginning of the school year, stressed the fact that the College completely shuts down over the break.
“In my four years as dean here at the College, I have only had four students come to me with difficulty finding housing during the winter break,” she said. For emergencies, Coleman maintains a list of 10 to 15 families in Williamstown that have offered to house international students who have made unsuccessful attempts to find winter break housing elsewhere.
Justin Adkins, queer life coordinator and assistant director of the MCC, is one of the College employees who has hosted international students over winter break in the past. He raised concerns over the CIH program, centering around the religious and cultural differences that the students placed into this program may feel if they are not familiar with Christianity or the major Christian holidays, especially Christmas, which winter break surrounds.
“With one of the main institutional options being to direct students to a Christian organization, this potentially puts our non-Christian students in an uncomfortable predicament over one of the most celebrated Christian holidays,” Adkins explained.
Adkins also worries about the extra burden that international students face in having to organize and find either housing or a program or institution to work with over break.
“To have our students asking faculty or community members for housing potentially puts them in an unfortunate position,” he said. “We need to come up with an institutionalized solution to support international students that will not be a burden on either the students or faculty.”
Students suggest that the problem is larger than many in the administration believe. “Most international students don’t have relatives in the [United States]; therefore they really don’t have a place to go [over break],” said a sophomore international student who requested anonymity.
Last year, this student declined the winter housing options that the College offered and ended up staying with a friend in New Rochelle, N.Y. “The College didn’t give us many options,” he said. His main concern with institutions such as CIH was cost, as students bear both a $100 registration fee and peak season travel costs to the host residence.
He also cited the general awkwardness of staying in a stranger’s home over the holidays. According to this student, the host families have been known to go on vacation over the break. “You don’t know those people, and you’re staying alone at their house, which I didn’t feel comfortable doing,” he explained.
Abdul Ziad ’14, from Saudi Arabia, has chosen not to stay in Williamstown during winter break. “The College did talk to me about my options, and I will probably leave Williams even if the dorms are left open,” Ziad explained. While his plans are not set in stone, he will most likely end up traveling to Boston or a location in Europe to meet up with his family members.
International students may have another alternative to finding winter break housing this year, as IC chairman Gonpo Lama ’12 is currently proposing to the College a service trip through Habitat for Humanity. Students would travel to New Rochelle in Westchester County to build homes for low-income families during the week, with the option of visiting New York City on the weekends. Although the current estimates for the trip cost are upwards of $400 per student, Lama aims to keep the sticker price at the $225 to match the vacation grant.
“I believe that finding winter break housing is a very pressing situation for many international students who really don’t need the extra burden,” Lama explained. “I’m trying to start this program so that there will be more options for international students over break in the future.”
Currently, the tentative program will only able to take a maximum of 30 students, but this number could change depending on the amount of financial support Lama can gather from the College. The program has already received support from a few College organizations, such as the Dean’s Office, the Multicultural Center (MCC), the Chaplains’ Office, Lehman Council and the Center for Community Engagement. So far, 21 students have expressed interest in this trip.
While the program is still in the works, Lama is hopeful of its eventual success.
“I want to make this an institutional program that Williams does for international students each year,” he explained.
Adriana Mendoza Leigh ’12, from Peru, is considering taking part in this year’s proposed student service trip. Last winter, one of Mendoza Leigh’s entrymates invited her to spend Christmas with her family in Los Angeles.
“I think the trip is a great idea, firstly because the option of opening a dorm seems unrealistic to me,” she said. However, Mendoza Leigh does not believe that the issue of international student housing is as serious as others may perceive it to be.
“The general feeling I get is that not that many internationals find themselves with no place to stay by Christmas time,” she said. “That being said, just because the number is relatively small doesn’t mean that the College should disengage from offering alternatives to those who are not lucky enough to have relatives in the States. I really appreciate the International Club’s initiative to fill that gap.”
While the idea of a service trip may be a good fit for some international students, others argue that it may not be a sustainable way to handle the issue of winter break housing.
“I think it’s a good idea for now, but it may be difficult to get the funding to do something like this every year,” the anonymous sophomore said. He expressed support for the proposal to keep a dorm open.
MCC director Lili Rodriguez also advocates for more meaningful solutions. “It seems unfair that the domestic student experience and the international student experience can be so different for these two weeks,” she said. “The questions that we need to be asking ourselves as an institution is, what is our commitment to international students, and how do we maintain this commitment?”