Thanksgiving. Christmas. The Fourth of July. America’s holidays present an opportunity to return to the comforts of home, enjoy their mother’s cooking and reminisce with old friends. For international students in the dorms, however, returning to their childhood stomping grounds isn’t an option.
Western Michigan University closes down most of its residence halls and cafeterias during extended periods of break. The closings present a problem for international students who aren’t able to visit home over break. Many exchange students use their time off to explore American culture and famous travel destinations.
Toshiki Sugiyama, originally from Japan, arrived just before the start of the Fall 2012 semester and has already made his way to Chicago, Miami and Washington D.C. He said he is already outlining a trip to New York over Spring Break with an American friend he met before in Japan.
Kodai Isouo, fellow Japanese citizen and friend with Sugiyama, went sightseeing in England for 12 days at the end of December. But Isouo’s traveling didn’t end upon his return to Kalamazoo. Unable to return to his dorm room, he spent two weeks moving in and out with friends until the university reopened in January.
WMU does offer alternative dormitory housing in the Burnhams during vacations but tenants are charged an additional fee on top of their semester’s room and board. One foreign exchange student from India, who prefers to be called Harold, was only made aware of this housing option at the last second, and for him the rate was prohibitively expensive.
“They didn’t provide me any emails or communication, what happened was I called them but they didn’t receive my phone [call] so I left them voicemails. I called to [my hall] but the office was closed,” Harold said. “I finally reached the administration building, but the time was really late, it was in December, I asked them what the deal was, how do I get to live in the Burnhams, they said you need to pay $400 whether you want to stay one day or one month.”
The exchange took place only two or three days before the break began. Fortunately, he had made other friends who allowed him to stay at their house.
“I did that arrangement last moment, in the last few days, otherwise I would have had to call my father and ask him to transfer money immediately. It was [a lot] of trouble for me,” Harold said.
However, his friends did not spend the break with him.
“Everything was closed so I had no other option. Luckily, since they were such good friends of mine, they gave me the car keys. They gave me everything in their house and they went home. They went back to India so I was all alone in their house for 20 days.”
Martin Wichar, a graduate student from South Sudan, appreciated his year in the dorms because it provided him an opportunity to improve his English in the close proximity of other native speakers. When Martin learned that the Department of Residence Life had placed him with another international student he was glad to have the chance to learn about a different culture but said he would have preferred to stay with an American student.
“We spoke English but not a lot like American students,” Wichar said.
When he filed for campus housing there was no place to specify whether or not he wanted to live with another international student. During extended breaks, Martin relied on his uncle in Grand Rapids for housing. After his first year in Valley I, he moved into a campus apartment where he could stay throughout the entire year.
Despite periodic eviction, dorm life does have its upsides for international students. Tarek al-Faidi, a Saudi Arabian student, has been studying English at WMU for the last year. He signed a lease with Campus Court apartments but he said he is rethinking his decision.
“I’m a shy person, more shy than back home because of poor English,” Tarek said. “I feel if I talk and face a lot of people maybe they will laugh at me or make up jokes about my language. In Campus Court everyone has their own friends. I heard in the dorms they are ready to be friends with you.”
Tarek plans to relocate soon. He said he needs to find a cheaper place to live to save money for his summer cruise around Italy, but the dorms are not on his list. He said the biggest reasons he is avoiding a move to the dorms is because of the small room size and the fact that their closure over Christmas would force him to move anyway.