Colleges help foreign students feel at home during the holidays

International students across the United States are putting off plans to return home for the holidays, as the nation grows increasingly fearful of terrorist attacks and wary of those who cross its borders.

Northeastern University graduate student Robert Birichi had eagerly anticipated a trip home to Kenya for the first time in two years. But he decided he'd better cancel his Christmas travel plans. The climate has changed, he says, for students here on visas.

"I don't want to risk getting stuck in Kenya with visa complications and end up missing classes," he says.

Since Sept. 11, President Bush has ordered tighter controls on foreign student visas, mindful that a terrorist with a student visa participated in the attacks.

As a result, many college and university officials are warning students of possible visa problems, and are providing everyone with as much up-to-date information as possible.

Some school officials, like those at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, have warned students to "please ... not travel home over the holidays unless it is necessary to do so, especially if home is not a European country."

Wartburg's director of international programs, Linda Wolf, who issued the advisory, notes that "immigration [officials had] commented several times that things were changing so rapidly they could not tell us what the operating procedure would be by January 2002."

But most schools don't seem quite as worried about potential visa problems, or are handling the issue on a case-by-case basis. "We don't discourage anyone from going home," says Rodolfo Altamirano, director for the International Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "But we are warning all international students, especially those with an expired visa, to make sure they have the necessary documents for coming back to the US."

Colleges and universities have also made plans to accommodate an anticipated surge in international students sticking around over the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

Richard Stegman, dean of student affairs at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., says they are keeping dorm rooms open over winter break for international students at no charge. The International Center will also remain open for the first time, complete with a kitchen and television.

And Scott Quint, director of Northeastern's International Student Office, says that "Sept. 11 has caused a far greater expressed interest among [international] students in wanting to connect with American families during Thanksgiving."

The university's annual Global Expressions program links international students with the families of faculty, staff, or students to celebrate the holiday, and takes the students on a field trip the next day to visit the Mayflower pilgrims' landing spot: Plymouth, Mass.

Mr. Birichi, the Kenyan, says he will take advantage of the program for the first time in his five years at Northeastern.

"I noticed that life is short ... and I need to meet more people - and get myself off campus for once during Thanksgiving."

Birichi adds that he wants to learn more about the holiday he knows so little about, and to "show Americans I care about them, like they did [for us] when the US Embassy in Nairobi was bombed."

Ashish Dak, a freshman from Bombay, echoes his sentiment. "After Sept. 11, it was amazing to to see how the US came together ... and that made me want to get to know American culture better."

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