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International Students May Spend Vacations Alone but Share a Common Bond.

By Chana R. Schoenberger

As last month's winter break approached, students across campus packed their dirty laundry into duffel bags, boarded planes and headed home, eagerly anticipating two weeks of sleep in their own beds. But for many international students, the destination of choice was familiar: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Rather than spend considerable amounts of time and money to return to their home countries for the vacation, each year many foreign students elect to stay in their dorm rooms or to visit friends in the United States.

"It's lonely," says Manjari S. Mahajan '98, a native of India who spent the vacation in her Winthrop House room. "Everyone comes back from vacation and says, 'I was with my family and you weren't.' Ideally, you would like to be home, but I managed fine without it."

Living too far away from Cambridge to go home over vacations is just one of the challenges facing Harvard's international students.

The College's 422 foreign undergraduates grapple daily with issues that many of their American classmates take for granted.

Some students find themselves in an often-frigid climate for the first time. Others must adjust to the American currency system or the constant use of English.

"I'm aware of a different perspective on life here," Mahajan says. "Things that on a cultural level American students take for granted were hard for me."

A New Group

To deal with this cultural transition, a group of foreign students last year organized the Woodbridge Society, of which Mahajan is now president.

She estimates that the club has 200 official members. Any student interested in international student issues is eligible to join.

The founding members of the group, named after Harvard's first international student, sought to give international students a place to interact and to support each other, a function which was not being filled by any of the 27 cultural or international groups on campus, according to Mahajan.

"We were surprised and, in a sense, disappointed that there wasn't an all-encompassing international society," says Ahmed T. el-Gaili '98, the club's vice president, a native of Sudan who grew up in Saudi Arabia.

The need for the group grew out of the feeling among many international students that they have more in common with each other than with their American classmates.

"There are so many different organizations on campus, but there was no common forum where we can meet and interact," she says. "It seemed that there was so much we could gain from each other."

The group, which meets several times a month, was intended primarily as a "support structure" for international students to help them deal with the problems of adjusting to life in a new country, Mahajan says.

Today, the Woodbridge Society's ever-growing list of programs includes monthly dinners with international faculty members, monthly open houses that feature different cuisines, open discussions and a mentorship program that matches international first years with older students from their home countries, according to Mahajan.

"The Woodbridge Society has done an amazing job thus far in setting up international study breaks and dinners, establishing a mentor program, and helping in the orientation events in the fall," says Assistant Dean of Freshmen Eleanor A. Sparagana, who is responsible for international first-years.

Sparagana outlined some of the group's upcoming programs, including the design of a World Wide Web home page and a booklet on the international experience.

Today many College administrators who had doubts about the group's viability regard it as one of the most important international student groups.

"The Woodbridge Society came together for the first time just about a year ago, and because it was spearheaded by a graduating senior, we feared that it might not continue this fall," says Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth S. Nathans. "It has, and it's an important and welcome new resource."

But not all international students feel the need to bond with their fellow foreign classmates.

"What can you do other than sit around and have a drink, talk about international issues?" says Suhail P. Shah '96, who is from India. "Such an amorphous topic is better left to specific cultural organizations."

Official Help

While the Woodbridge Society and the other ethnic and cultural organizations give international students a place to discuss issues that interest them and to realize that they are not the only ones going through hard times, foreign students often turn to the College for more official help.

Consider, for example, the case of a stranded first-year who needed a place to go over Christmas vacation.

In order to encourage students to go home for the long vacation, the Yard and Union dorms close during the winter break.

International students who do not go home or stay with friends sometimes have trouble finding a place to spend the vacation, says Nathans.

One first-year from Bulgaria who decided to stay in Cambridge turned to the International Students Office for help after her vacation plans fell through

"I planned to stay in of the upper-class dorms, but the Dean called me and said that the house master didn't want to take responsibility for a freshman staying all by herself in the dorm," says the student, who wishes to remain anonymous. "This was three or four days before the freshman dorms were to be closed."

W. C. Burriss Young '55, assistant dean of first-year students, contacted the International Office, which was able to find a local family to house the student over the break, she said.

The adventure ended up turning out for the best, the student says, as she went with her host family on a ski trip to New Hampshire.

"It was really a narrow escape this year, and I'm really thankful to the people in the International Office," the student says. "It's really bad if you don't know where to go. It can get really frustrating."

The International Office works to ensure that all international first years have plans for winter break, says Seamus P. Malin '62, the office's director.

"But sometimes we have to hustle and find a local family," he adds.

In addition to locating emergency vacation lodging for students, the International Office provides a range of official support services to foreign students, Malin says.

The office and the Freshman Dean's Office jointly sponsor a picnic for new foreign students during Orientation Week. In addition, Malin says, the International Office holds an annual event for new students to introduce them to the ins and the outs of the University.

"We discuss what a proctor is supposal to do, what are the undergraduate organization that can help, what the Woodbridge Society is all about," he says. "We talk about the frustrations of getting used to a new culture, like how to get a Social Security card and how to persuade the banks in Harvard Square that you're for real."

The office also serves as a clearing house for legal information that international students need, including lists of visa restrictions and instruction on how to tile American tax forms.

While students appreciate the work that office does, some wish it would provide more personal support to students.

"On the whole, I don't think the University does anything for international students," she said. "Not in terms of visa information, but on a personal level, you need a support structure."

Emotional Concerns

But the International Office does not present to serve students' social or emotional needs. For that level of support, international students often find that their best resource is other students.

For those who did manage to stay at Harvard over the vacation, for example the Woodbridge Society organized group meals and outings.

"There were about 15 of us. We ate meals together and went out for New Year's Eve," says Kaniaru Wacieni '98, a Kenyan student and Woodbridge Society officer who stayed in his Eliot House room during the break.

The Society also organized a Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant for students who remained at school over the Thanksgiving break, according to el-Gaili.

"Thanksgiving is a little bit too short to go home, which applies to all international students," el-Gaili says. "I can't think of anyone who went home for Thanksgiving, but for Christmas, it's about half and half."

The group hopes to plan a trip for international students staying in the area, during intercession, he says.

Partly as a result of the support from the Woodbridge Society, Wacieni considers his time at Harvard to be a "very broadening experience."

"You meet new people and have new experiences," he says. "I've learned so much from interacting with people."

Wacieni says he--like many other international students--admires the general curiosity and interest of Harvard students, who tend to be open to new cultures.

"People here are open to new things, things different from their own experiences," he says. "They're concerned. They want to know about me as a person, where I come from."

International students cite the opportunity to interest with other students--both international and American-as perhaps the most positive aspect of their Harvard international experience.

"For many international students, coming here is both a challenge and an enriching experience," says el Gaili. "We have the chance to interact with people from other parts of the worid and with American students. This is important because we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly interdependent."

"We talk about the frustrations of getting used to a new culture, like how to get a Social Security card and how to persuade the banks in Harvard Square that you're for real." -Seamus P. Malin '62

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