Lehigh's Office of International Affairs (OISS) offers social gatherings, meals, and events for international students who cannot go home for the holidays

Amin Hosseiny Marani can’t simply go home for the holidays. A native of Iran, he would have to apply for a visa in a third country in order to return to the United States and go through an extensive administrative process stretching over several months, making a visit home during the winter break too impractical.

Instead, the PhD student of computer science spent his break at Lehigh University, where much of the campus dining and transportation services were temporarily halted as the majority of the student population spent their holidays at home.

“Whenever there is a break that affects undergrads, the whole campus shuts down,” said Marani, 36. “There’s very little dining, very few buses. It’s like a ghost town.”

That’s where the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) comes in, offering social gatherings, meals, and a variety of on- and off-campus events for Lehigh’s international student community who are unable to leave the campus during the holidays.

“This can be a lonely time of year for our international students,” said Amanda Connolly, Director of International Students and Scholars with OISS. “Part of the work we do is making sure those students feel like they have people who are here and advocating for them, and who are making sure their needs are heard.”

Connolly stressed that Lehigh University – particularly auxiliary services and dining – are sensitive to the needs of these students during holiday breaks. This year, Rathbone Hall extended its dining hours for students remaining on campus, and created a new meal plan so brunch and dinner options are available to them.

During winter break, OISS offered international students various meals and snacks, social gatherings, movie nights, and tickets to local events, such as the Lehigh Valley Zoo holiday lights, Christkindlmarkt, Lehigh Valley Phantoms games, and carriage rides.

The Global Union lounge at Coxe Hall remains open to all students and scholars during the break, and offers several opportunities for students to gather, Connolly said. Similar services and social gatherings were also offered by OISS during the recent Thanksgiving break, in partnership with Student Access & Success and the Lehigh University Police Department.

“A big part of what the students seem to be looking for is not just food, but also fellowship, connection, and knowing they’re not the only ones away from home during the holidays,” Connolly said.

Zelalem Ayalew, a 21-year-old sophomore from Ethiopia studying bioengineering at Lehigh, visited the Global Union during the break and took advantage of several of the OISS offerings. He said it would be difficult to obtain a visa to temporarily visit home, and a difficult and expensive trip even if he were to get one, culminating with a 16-hour flight.

Connolly said in addition to the difficult visa processes, the increasing cost and difficulty of travel results in more students staying on campus over the break. For some, it is not financially or logistically feasible to go home during the winter break.

Caroline Pinheiro, a freshman from Brazil studying agriculture at Lehigh, already has a U.S. passport, but said she is staying on campus during the break because it would be too expensive to travel home. She would have to travel to an airport outside the region, take an expensive flight to Rio de Janeiro, then travel further within Brazil to reach her home city.

“I’m glad Lehigh and OISS offer what they do for the students who are still here, because otherwise we’d have nothing to do,” said Pinheiro, 18. “And it’s also good because you get to meet other students who are staying here during the break. It’s nice to do things on and off campus and meet people I might not otherwise have met.”

A part of Lehigh University’s Office of International Affairs, OISS seeks to empower Lehigh’s international community through holistic support and advising in order to create global minded citizens. It provides intentional programming to bolster the professional and personal development of Lehigh’s international community, and advocates on behalf of students and scholars regarding immigration, academic, and personal matters.

Additionally, OISS educates international students and scholars on how to maintain their immigration status; advises faculty, staff, and departments on what is required to host international students and scholars; and ensures that Lehigh is in compliance with immigration regulations.