International students find home for the holidays

Photo courtesy of Jon Drews

Instead of somberly wandering the deserted campus while their classmates stuff themselves with turkey and other treats on Thanksgiving, international students will get the chance to celebrate the holiday with local families.

As part of the Home for the Holidays program, about 120 students will be paired with 80 hosts who are willing to share their houses with those who can’t manage to make it home for the break. Most students looking to be paired are graduate students, but hosts include professors, faculty, alumni, graduate and undergraduate families, and even higher-up Tech officials.

The program was initiated in 2014 by Brandie Banner, then Vice President of SGA, and has been brought back each year due to the positive feedback that SGA has received. Last year, nearly 100 percent of hosts and students said the program facilitated a positive exchange of cultures. In the future, SGA intends the program to be run by the special events
team, since it is becoming more solidified.

“It was really born out of the fact that a lot of international students don’t really get the chance to go home since it’s so far away,” said Ben Nickel, chief of staff for SGA and program director of Home for the Holidays.

In order to reach the most people as possible, promotions for the event began in early October. Flyers were put up in dorms and common spaces, and SGA encouraged academic advisors to send emails out to those their major.

The process of pairing students with eager hosts began about a month ago. The first step is dealing with transportation concerns so that students can easily get to hosts homes, and then he begins to look at the preferences that students and hosts indicated on a questionnaire. Some generous hosts are even willing to let students stay with them for the entirety of break, so that must also be taken into consideration.

Nickel tries his best to facilitate the creation of groups of people that can have an enjoyable and fruitful experience. He combines people with aligned preferences, common home countries and similar interests.

“It’s really cool when you can pair someone with someone that speaks their own language. For example, there is a host that speaks Turkish, so I paired them with the one student that spoke Turkish,” Nickel said.

Safety, finances and a desire for community are all concerns to international students.

Home for the Holidays is a program that not only attempts to make up for the absence of family in the U.S. but also actively tries to develop Tech’s community.

“Culture change is a very specific point. It starts with getting to know and understanding people who are different from you,”  Nickel said.

“It’s a two-way street between people who are Georgia Tech community members learning about the background and the history of the students they’re hosting, as well as international students who don’t know what it’s like to have Thanksgiving in America.”

The distribution of international students participating is generally reflective of the overall population of Tech: there are people from all over the world. India and China were the most represented countries, but participants also come from Pakistan,
Germany, Czechia and many others. Nickel says that once the program has the ability to expand in the future, they will be able to place students who live in the U.S., but not in Georgia, as well, sparing these students from having to spend their break on campus on their own.

Home for the Holidays at Tech has been so successful and rewarding to its participants that other schools have shown interest in trying to mimic the program. There are even murmurs about creating a program for the Christmas season in coming years as well.

Home for the Holidays hopes to finish pairing and send emails out to participants by early next week so that they can begin planning their break.

“I am super excited. I won’t get the chance to host anyone, but I anticipate getting lots of emails and phone calls the day of,” Nickel said. “I truly believe that it promotes an opportunity for change in culture, and I hope that they get a chance to get to know the culture of the community they go to school in and explore Atlanta.”

He looks forward to receiving photos from families and students who are actively building connections in the Tech community while participating in an American cultural holiday.