December 14, 2011 | Phil de Haan

International students who can't go home for the holidays find a Christmas atmosphere at Knollcrest East.

 Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays

'Cause no matter how far away you roam

When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze

For the holidays you can't beat home, sweet home

~Perry Como, circa 1954

For some 150 Calvin students who hail from a variety of far-flung locales, there will be no going home for the holidays this Christmas. Instead the students, a record number, will encamp in the college's on-campus, Knollcrest East (KE) Apartments for the two weeks that the college is closed for the holiday break.

Calvin staff hope to bring a touch of home-sweet-home to the students' stay in Grand Rapids, including the sunshine of a friendly gaze during some of the shortest days of the year. "We know it's tough for students, especially students who live in other countries and who can't go home," said Jay Wise, assistant dean of residence life at Calvin. "So, while they're here, we try to provide some opportunities for them to have some fun and enjoy themselves."

This year, that will include such things as pizza parties, Meijer runs, movie outings at the local cheap theater, a potluck dinner and more.

Wise knows the activities won't replace the camaraderie students would normally enjoy at home with family and friends, but he says international  students who have formerly stayed in KE during the holidays have appreciated both the activities that were planned for them and the  relationships they built with other stranded international students.

"Some people like the downtime," he said. "It's a chance to get to know people in a little more relaxed way. There's no homework, no pressures, so people tend to be pretty open to conversations, a game of ping pong, that sort of thing."

Hanging out, making friends

Daniel Kang is one such student. A business communication and studio art major from Ecuador, Kang is unable to see his family this Christmas because of the expense of flying home. He is resigned to staying in Grand Rapids for the holidays, but he plans to use the time getting ready for The Chicago Semester—a popular semester program open to all majors that includes an internship and two weekly seminars.

Kang said he will miss the family, food, language and traditions of a place he has not visited for two years, but he is planning to make the best of his two weeks in KE.

Those thoughts were shared by Jenai Quan, a first-year biology major from Singapore, who said she's looking forward to "chill time" at KE and cooking for herself. The things she'll miss the most about not being home for the holidays: "Food, warm weather and family."

For the holidays, Calvin will provide a staff of four RAs, including two international students, who will live on campus with the students on a rotating basis. It also will staff the KE desk each day of the break, providing a place where students can check out games, books, pots and pans and ping- pong paddles or stop by for a friendly conversation with the "deskie."

When the dorms close on Dec. 17, Jana Biegel, assistant area coordinator at the apartments, will run a shuttle service to help the international students living in the dorms  move into the apartments. "Probably 40 (students of the 150 who will be in K.E. for the break) will come from the dorms," said Biegel, "so giving them a ride is a nice way for us to get things started on the right foot." Biegel will also be around for the majority of the break, and Campus Safety will provide a regular presence around the apartments.

Joshua Song, one of the resident assistants (RAs) for the break, hopes to help the students use the break for rest and reflection.

A needed break

"Each semester brings a rapid pace that keeps international students busy, just like any other average student," said Song, a self-described Korean-Canadian missionary kid from China. "I believe that—in a spiritual sense—during the break, students will have the opportunity to reflect on their spiritual standing and relationship with God."

This year Calvin has some 400 students from outside of North America (in a recent report it ranked fifth in the nation in its category for international students.

An Dinh, a Calvin graduate student in speech pathology and a current RA in KE, knows she can't do anything about replacing the warm weather students will miss out on, but she is hoping to help out as best she can with the food and family elements. The native of Vietnam is not going home this Christmas and volunteered to be an RE over break. "Many of us have a place to go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. And if we don't, many of us will gather and cook together. As an RA this Christmas break, I hope that I can help them feel less homesick,” she said.

This year Calvin has some 400 students from outside of North America. The college ranks fifth in the nation in its category for the number of international students, according to the Open Doors Report from the Institute of International Education.

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