Here for the holidays
For staunch believers in Santa Claus, the difference between time zones might help jolly old Saint Nick in his pursuit to circle the globe in one night. For University international students however, time zones mark just how many hours have to be crossed to get home, and sometimes it is just too far for a three-week visit.
Junior Benson Ntiwas spent the first part of last year’s winter break on campus — an experience he remembers as “boring,” which makes him “almost dread December break.”
“Here in Eugene it was boring because of course, school was out of session and the campus was deserted; there was only a handful of my friends around,” Ntiwas said in an e-mail. “The inclement weather did not help; I am from a tropical country — Kenya — where it is warm all year round.”
Ntiwas and other international students find the ticket back for the holidays is too expensive to justify such a short trip home.
“When I go home, I really want to spend time there,” Ntiwas said. “I call it ‘Kenya time.’ It’s my comfort zone. It’s where I can be completely free.”
As the only student in his area chosen to attend Mang’u High School, Kenya’s top national school, Ntiwas decided to attend the University after meeting a Duck alumnus on the Mang’u faculty. With the help of a family from Eugene that happened to be traveling through Kenya, Ntiwas applied for scholarships to balance the cost of tuition and living. During the past two winter breaks, he’s spent part of the holiday season with this local family.
Sophomore Albert Jung, on the other hand, said last year’s record snowfall resulted in “one of the best snow scenes I’ve ever seen” — a sight he said was only enhanced by the deserted campus.
“You can take a walk on campus for an hour and you barely see more than one person,” he said in an e-mail. “This beautiful white campus and lack of people’s presence creates an indescribable atmosphere.”
Last December, Jung remained on campus because of the price of airfare home to Pusan, South Korea. This year he plans to stay as a resident assistant.
“During winter break, there’s nothing to do for me, besides just staying in my room, enjoying music, drinking coffee, watching snow, walking alone in the winter wonderland, and thinking about people I love,” he said. “During last winter break, I barely talked with more than one person each day,” he said. “Because I am very busy and have to deal with a huge amount of people during the school year due to my job and major, this time of solitary is very restful.”
International students face two main barriers when it comes to winter break traveling: distance and cost. Usually, the farther a student studies from home, the more expensive the ticket to get back. Ntiwas pays upwards of $5,000 for a round-trip flight to Kenya. In addition, International Student and Scholar Services Associate Director Abe Schafermeyer said the economy of a student’s home country can influence whether he or she returns home for break. This trend becomes especially clear when analyzing where the majority of international students hail from.
“Compared to last year’s numbers, I know we’ve seen more than a 100 percent increase in the number of international students from China,” Schafermeyer said. “It makes sense because China’s economy and middle class are growing. More families are able to afford sending their students abroad.”
Schafermeyer said the enrollment numbers of international students tend to mirror the economy of that student’s home country.
“In the early 1990s there was a steady growth of international students, especially from East Asia,” he said. “Then the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis hit and the numbers dropped off. It’s only been since 2005 that we’ve started seeing an increase again.”
Ha Truong of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, spent her first Christmas in the U.S. with an American family when she studied in Montana and Wyoming. The University junior and her family celebrate Christmas in Vietnam and says that no matter where you are during the holidays, it is worth celebrating.
“Christmas, in my opinion, is an international holiday,” Truong said. “You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate it.”
However, Ntiwas said he doesn’t enjoy the holidays in America the way he does with his family in Kenya. He is still adjusting to the many nuances of Western culture, including the concept of Santa Claus, a holiday fable he’d never heard of before coming to America two and a half years ago.
“The idea of Santa Claus is very alien to me,” Ntiwas said. “I just have no context for it.”
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