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Alone and abroad this festive season? Hang with the locals

You might be able to share a holiday meal with a host family, if you're staying back for the holidays. Source: Shutterstock

International students don’t always get to spend the holidays back home.

The winter break is quite short and it costs a pretty penny to book a flight home during the festive season so many have little choice but to remain in university.

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom for them.

Some universities have programs that connect international students with locals or faculty/staff members so that they needn’t spend the holidays alone, and even get to share a meal and observe traditions with their hosts.

It’s a great opportunity to learn how other cultures spend the holidays, which can be very different from what international students are used to back home.

Lakehead University in Canada is one university that does this. This year, they held their “home for the holidays” program once again, after a successful run in 2017.

Sarah Melvin, the international student coordinator at Lakehead University, said since many international students choose to stay in Thunder Bay during the winter break, the university wanted to make sure they would have options to fill their time.

“It’s nice to provide them with some fun options to do over the holiday break that will allow them to still feel at home and make new friends,” she said.

For many in the program, the experience is a highly rewarding one. They not only get to share in the holiday festivities and learn a new culture, they also get to build new friendships and expand their local network.

“It’s great for international students, they learn about our Canadian customs and traditions, and in turn, they also share their culture and traditions with the host and their families … and we find more often than not that our hosts and students stay in touch afterwards,” said Melvin.

Lakehead student success advisor Richard Clark reportedly hosted as many as 10 international students for Christmas Eve dinner this year. These included a first-year student from Bangladesh, Abu Hena Kamal.

Abu Hena said he wanted to participate in the program “to know more about the Canadian home culture, like how they celebrate their Christmas.”

Clark said he enjoys hosting the students because “it is a really neat opportunity for my family and I to learn about other cultures and share some of what we care about with others.”

At the University of Alberta, there’s a similar program called the U of A’s Share the Cheer program.

The program, organised through International Student Services, connects international students with Edmonton-based host families who volunteer to take them in for a dinner, an event, or even an afternoon over the break.

Jay Parmar, a 23-year-old student at the university, decided not to head home this year. His home country is in Tanzania, which was a bit far to get to, and not worth the long trip just for two weeks.

Two years ago, he stayed back for Christmas but found it boring, and didn’t have much to look forward to.

He knew he wouldn’t be heading back last year either, so he began looking for things to do over the break. After some research, he found the Share the Cheer program.

Parmar shared a holiday meal with his host family last year, and enjoyed the casual ambiance. He said, “It actually felt like you were home and having a chat with your family.”

He encourages others to give the program a chance as well. “It will be the highlight for your Christmas break in Canada.”

Gavin Palmer, student engagement programs co-ordinator of U of A, said, “This year, 281 students were registered in the program, and 94 hosts. While it’s geared toward international students, the program is open to anyone who’s stuck away from home for the break.”

Joyce Krueger, a Share the Cheer host, said, “It’s a good way for us to kind of share our cultures and traditions,” Krueger said. “I find a lot of international students are interested in what we do and how we do stuff, and then we get to learn their cultures and the way they celebrate.”

Many universities have similar programs for those staying back over the holidays. If you find yourself in the same position next year, check with your university or international student department if they have programs like this.

You could gain a valuable experience learning how other cultures celebrate the holidays and make some new friends!

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