For many, the winter holidays are a time that is spent with friends and family, sharing festive foods in familiar places.
However, for many international college students, this may not be a possibility.
For the fall 2018 semester, Fresno State has 808 international students from 80 countries, and according to International Student Adviser Jamie Jones, an estimated half of them don’t get to travel home for winter break.
“Paying those exorbitant airline tickets home over the holidays that are like three times more expensive is not always an option for a lot of students,” Jones said. “We have some students that come here, and they don’t go home for like the five years that they’re here.”
That doesn’t mean these students have to spend the break alone.
The International Student Services and Programs (ISSP) office at Fresno State offers an International Friendship Program which matches international students with American families to develop friendships and connections that can help ease culture-shock and provide a support system for students who are a long way from their homes.
While Jones suggested the holiday season may not be the best time to seek a friendship family, she said that making that connection early on in an international student’s college career can offer some comfort during the holidays.
Comfort doesn’t have to be one’s blood relative, according to Ariel Omar Leo, an international student and business major from Indonesia, who said his friends in Fresno have become like family.
“Hanging out with ‘family’ — my friends — because that’s what we have here,” Leo said.
A friendship family is also a significant resource for international students, as Jones noted that studies have indicated roughly 40 percent of international students don’t make an American friend.
This statistic may be shocking when considering that many international students may not have the opportunity to travel home during their college career, and some spend their entire four-to-five-year college experience without returning to visit their families.
Jones said that although many international students remain abroad for the duration of their education, surprisingly, the rate of homesickness and loneliness during the holidays is not unusually high.
She attributes this to the use of modern technology such as Skype, Facebook and other social media, which students can use to connect to their families no matter how far from home they may be.
Social media is also utilized by the ISSP, particularly on its Facebook page, where it hosts seasonal contests and activities. One of which is a winter break photo contest in which international students can submit and share photos of their experiences and activities during the winter break for a chance to win assorted prizes.
“A lot of our students celebrate with their friends because they’re in the same kind of situation. A lot of them don’t go home… a lot of them travel and go somewhere with friends,” Jones said. “If they’re not leaving, they either stay local and take a class or something or they travel somewhere in the United States.”
In addition to using the time off from school to travel and explore America, Jones said many international students opt to take a winter course, as out-of-state fees for these courses is less money per unit than semester classes.
Such is the plan for Bader Alakeel, an international student from Saudi Arabia majoring in communication, who said he plans on taking a winter course.
“My situation is a little different than others, as I’m a transfer student, and this is my first semester, so I won’t go home,” Alakeel said. “I plan on taking a class and going to Orange County to visit family this winter break.”
The ISSP office is open during the winter break except for one week from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1, in order to offer advising, resources and support for international students who stay in town during the break.
Jones encourages American students to reach out to international students to not only form a support structure for those away from home, but to offer a cultural experience to local students they may not otherwise receive.
“I think that you can make lasting connections from around the world that broaden your worldview,” Jones said. “That’s another way to experience the world from the comfort of your campus.”
For more information on the International Friendship Program at Fresno State, please visit http://www.ifpfresno.org/.