6 Ways International Students Can Spend the U.S. Holidays

American holidays bring with them festive lights, lots of food and celebration. But for international students, U.S. holidays can sometimes be a tough and lonely time. Planning ahead can help.

“The American holiday that has surprised me the most is Thanksgiving. I can say that it was one of my first culture shocks,” says Jorge Chevez Ricardo, from Panama, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Doane University in Nebraska. Ricardo says he was surprised that there was a specific holiday devoted, in its modern interpretation, simply to giving thanks.

Unlike some international students, Ricardo has so far always managed to have plans on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. “Thanks to the people I’ve met at Doane and friends who live in the U.S., I never had to spend a holiday break alone,” says Ricardo, who is set to graduate in 2023.

Spending the holidays alone is something Eron Memaj, director of international support services at the University of Kansas, doesn’t want international students to experience. As a former international student from Albania, Memaj says the holidays were always a special time for him because friends would invite him to their homes. It was a way for him to immerse in U.S. culture and partake in the festivities.

He says his office tries to help build relationships between international and American students “to spark curiosity for cultural exchange, which can include an invitation to a Thanksgiving dinner or perhaps participating in a Secret Santa gift exchange.”

[READ: 4 Questions to Ask the International Student Office]

With the holidays quickly approaching, here are a few ways international students can plan to spend them:

Get Together With Other Students

Hanging out with a few fellow students can bring more holiday cheer.

Daphne Orr, director of international student programs at Emory University–Oxford College in Georgia says international students will sometimes get an Airbnb together in Atlanta and plan fun activities like going out to eat, singing karaoke, going ice skating and shopping. She says it’s a good way for students to relax without the stress of studying.

“For Thanksgiving this year, I am planning to do a ‘Friendsgiving’ with my friends. Each of us will bring a dish that we made, and we’ll play some games together,” says Keita Yaji from Japan, who is majoring in business management at Oregon State University. The festivities will include a white elephant gift exchange, in which each guest brings a wrapped gift for swapping.

For Christmas, Yaji says he’s planning on spending time with his friend’s family to put up decorations and have a holiday dinner.

Ricardo says he and a group of international students are planning a trip to Colorado over Thanksgiving, and “in case that plan does not work, we have a Plan B to have lunch together.”

Celebrate With People From Your Home Country

Sometimes students may not be able to travel back home, but getting together with fellow students from your own country can help.

“Spending the U.S. holidays to catch up with friends from your home country can also be a good idea for international students, especially if students are experiencing homesickness,” Memaj says.

He says doing so can help students feel at home, even if that home is thousands of miles away.

[READ: 4 Ways International Freshmen Can Develop Active Social Lives.]

Volunteer in the Community

The holidays can be a great opportunity for international students to help others.

“Prior to COVID, volunteering has been part of campus-wide initiatives before the break. These included wrapping gifts as part of a toy drive and assembling care packages,” Orr says.

Volunteerism and philanthropy, Memaj says, are unique dimensions of U.S. culture.

“Volunteering at a food shelter or a local community center is another opportunity for international students to experience another facet of U.S. culture while also helping others in need,” Memaj says.

Go Sightseeing Across the U.S.

The holidays can be a good time to finally explore the U.S.

Sandy Ge from Shanghai, China, a double major in business administration and quantitative sciences at Oxford College of Emory University, says she plans to travel with five friends in the U.S. during the holidays.

“We have not yet settled our plan, but some potential choices include New York, Boston and L.A.,” Ge says.

Memaj says this is a chance for students to see what the U.S. is like outside of their university campus and to check off some must-see places from their bucket list.

“Depending on where students plan to go, travel arrangements can be inexpensive due to the off-season of some locations,” Memaj says.

Stay on Campus

At some universities, international students can remain on campus during the break.

Brian Stroup, operations director for Oregon State University’s housing and dining services, says international students living on campus can remain at no additional charge but must sign up to let housing staff know in advance.

“All residence halls remain open during the break, along with a dining center to serve students during this time period,” Stroup says.

The University of Kansas requires students living in residence halls to fill out an application and pay an additional fee to remain over winter break, Memaj says. Experts advise students to check with their university to understand their school’s policies during the holidays.

Go Home for the Holidays

Alternately, students who can afford it can plan to use the holiday break to travel home.

“The time during U.S. holidays is an ideal time for international students to return home to reunite with family and friends,” says Memaj. “As many of us know, very few things can replace the comfort of home so this is a wonderful opportunity for students to return home and recharge.”

During the winter break of 2020, Ricardo had planned to travel home to Panama to spend the holidays with his family but ended up getting COVID a day before traveling. He says that break was one of the most challenging he ever had until a friend from Minnesota ended up inviting him to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with him.

“For this winter break, I am planning to go back to Panama to spend Christmas and New Year with my family,” says Ricardo. “I haven’t seen them in a long time.”

More from U.S. News

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How to Look After Mental Health as an International Student in the U.S.

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6 Ways International Students Can Spend the U.S. Holidays originally appeared on usnews.com

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