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Holiday Hospitality Cheers Foreign Students Far from Home

"It gets lonely during Christmas," says 22-year-old Nursyamsiah Shamsuddin of Malaysia. Shams, as she likes to be called, is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where many of the more than two-thousand international students end up staying on campus during the holiday break.

They're unable to travel home due to the high cost of air fare and limited time before classes resume in January, while most of the approximately 20-thousand undergraduate and graduate students have left for holiday celebrations around the United States with family or friends.

Shams says the UVA campus is eerily quiet. "Sometimes I go to the library and check books out or watch movies. Then, during Christmas, everything is closed. So I just walk."

But Shams says the university does its best to spread holiday cheer. "This winter break, there's a person at the University of Virginia's International Student Office, who sent out an e-mail that there's going to be a Christmas dinner, and officials will give the students a ride to take them to someone's home for dinner."

Shams, who is Muslim, says faculty members of the same faith have invited her to join them in a large prayer celebration on December 31st, which, this year, is the holy day known as Eid al-Adha. "We are going to have a morning prayer," she says with a smile. "So we're going to rent a place on the University grounds to get together and pray. After that, one of the families will invite me to have breakfast with them, and after that, I'll spend the night at their house."

The Institute of International Education, a non-profit, New York City-based organization promoting student exchanges, says that holiday hospitality for international students is on the minds of a lot of college administrators these days. The Institute says that about 600,000 students from nearly 90 countries, many from China, India, and South Korea, are enrolled at American colleges and universities, reversing an enrollment decline of recent years.

Scott King, the director of the University of Iowa's Office of International Students says it bothers him "that too many of our student exchange offices are envisioned at least initially by students as being mainly working with the immigration rules we have to abide by... like reports the government requires of us when we host students here or basic documents used to get visas. We also work with them on applications that come with immigration."

King says the winter holidays are a time to put all that aside for a while and focus on the real meaning of international student exchanges like voluntary gestures of goodwill from the community. Iowa City churches, for instance, host holiday events for international students, and some 300 Iowa City families belong to an organization known as Friends of International Students, whose members invite them to their homes for special meals.

Thirty-year old Gyorgy Toth of Budapest, Hungary, a University of Iowa graduate student, raves about a Christmas card from an Iowan friend written "in Hungarian, which is a very, very special experience for me because I'm not used to reading Hungarian Christmas greetings in the United States. So that was very special for me from her."

Toth says he has a warm place in his heart for Christmas time spent at the University of Iowa. "I remember the first Christmas here: several people offered me to spend Christmas Day with them, whether it was faculty or friends. People really made an effort to reach out to me and include me in their celebration. It is a special time of the year, and it does show in people's behavior."

It's also a special time at the University of Wisconsin, a large state-supported network, whose Oshkosh campus alone has approximately 2300 international students. Brian Mylrea, the director of the school's International Student Association, says that "of the half who do stay here on campus during the holidays, we do our best to match them with host families in the community. We have support programs in our Residence Life Hall. The students usually have a faculty or staff mentor, someone to match up with. I am always more than happy to take international students in my home during the holidays."

Adds Mylrea: "Students can be really stressed out at the end of a long fall semester. They're away from their family. We don't want anyone to be lonely this time of year."

Officials in charge of international student exchanges say that many of the young men and women who've come to America for a first-rate college education can count on a bonus during the holiday season: a first-hand encounter with the heartfelt generosity of Americans.