For Some Students, Alone For The Holidays
Mistletoe. Menorahs. Eggnog. In an academic calendar tailored to Western cultural and religious traditions, even the most familiar holiday symbols have the potential to exclude minority students during the long, cold winter holiday.
Ousseynou Diome grew up in a remote village in Senegal, and attended the prestigious African Leadership Academy, a residential secondary school in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the lofty goal of training the next generation of African leaders. Now, he's a second year student at Bennington College, a liberal arts school in rural Vermont where Diome is pursuing a double major in mathematics and economics, with the intention of studying business in graduate school.
Diome, a devout Muslim, calls his first year at Bennington—a school the Princeton Review ranked this year as having the least religious students in the nation—a “culture shock.” Some of his classmates were confrontational about his beliefs and upbringing, and he was discouraged when he couldn't find enough support to start a Muslim student association. But maintaining an open mind, and taking advantage of a thorough orientation program, he says he soon embraced academics and social life at Bennington.
That is, until his first winter break. His undergraduate peers all went home for the holidays, and friends in the admissions and external relations offices who had had him over for dinner during his first semester traveled out of town as well.
Diome slipped through the cracks, and spent most of winter break alone in his dorm, acutely missing his family in Senegal.
“It’s difficult, you feel really lonely,” he said, breaking for the first time from his optimistic tone. “That’s one time of the year that clearly shows you that you don’t belong to the country you are in. It wasn’t a great experience.”
Diome, the only African Muslim at Bennington, is not the only student will spend winter break a long way from home, both in terms of physical distance and spirituality. For many, winter break is a welcome reprieve from final exams and a chance to visit with family. For others (including homeless students and other vulnerable groups) it can be a time of emotional or even physical hardship.
The winter recess between semesters observed at the majority of Western universities is rather transparently based around Christmas and the Gregorian new year. Administrators on most campuses have wrestled the break into hygienic secularism, but that doesn't change the scheduling reality—or, potentially, the feelings of marginalization—for students from other traditions.
“Anything can happen when you are not where you come from,” Diome said, struggling to find the right words. “But that's something I was expecting when I came here.”
Holidays in a number of major world religions other than Christianity do fall during winter break, at least some of the time. Judaism observes Hannukah during December or late November, and many individuals who identify as Pagan or Wiccan commemorate the winter solstice.
Religious observances in Islam, including Ramadan and the Day of Ashura, follow the lunar Muslim calendar, so they can fall during the winter break period—but on other years, including 2011, they don't (a minority of Muslims do celebrate Christmas, highlighting Jesus' role in the Quran.)
No one is suggesting a change to the standard academic calendar—in any event, no scheduling concession would please every group. But small gestures, either in school policy or on an interpersonal level, can make a world of difference.
People who reached out to Diome during his first months in the country, he said, “are the type of people who make you realize there is no reason you should be a terrible person.”
International student affairs administrators report little in the way of formal programming during the winter holiday, citing high numbers of international students who return home or take the opportunity to travel during that period.
Carnegie Mellon has among the highest proportions of international students in the United States. Linda Gentile, director of that institution's Office of International Education, noted that many universities roll together activities aimed at international and non-international students who remain on campus during the holiday.
"Carnegie Mellon does provide some programming for students who stay on campus during break, including international as well as domestic students," Gentile said.
And some students go home for the break, but attach no religious significance to the period, either as atheists or as members of a faith with no observances at that time.
Sally Maier, a graduate student at Bowling Green State University, identifies as pagan but returns home during winter break to see her family. She takes part in Christmas traditions with her family—including sometimes attending an Episcopal midnight mass—but tells friends at school that she is going home for Yule, a Germanic midwinter festival she associates with her faith.
“I go home for break because it keeps my family sane, results in my being fed, and gets me out of Ohio,” she wrote.
She's not too sensitive about the Judeo-Christian origins of winter recess, she says—it's just the reality of living in this culture. In any case, she says that she deals with a lot of Christian texts studying medieval and renaissance music, and that hasn't posed a problem.
“People call it 'Christmas break,' but it’s not any intentional religious snub, and I generally use 'Have a good break,'” she wrote.
Laura Young, a senior at Vanderbilt University with a Christian father and a Bahá'í mother, has embraced plurality for a more unusual reason. During her first year of college, she became more interested in religion and chose to commit to the Bahá'í Faith, a nineteenth-century offshoot of Islam with a diverse population of followers who number well under ten million worldwide.
“We're pretty small on campus, only a few at a time,” she said.
Although the Bahá'í usually associate the exchanging of gifts with the Festival of Ayyám-i-Há, which takes place in late February and early March, Young sees no contradiction in celebrating Christmas with her friends at Vanderbilt, or her father. In part, that is due to the central Bahá'í tenet that the teachings of most other religions were divinely inspired too—a belief she characterizes as “being able to amalgamate all the stories and values” of other religious traditions.
“I've always enjoyed how embracing the Ba'hai faith is,” she said. “I find no conflict in that.”
This year, Diome is spending winter break in nearby Londonderry, Vermont, with the family of a former teacher at the African Leadership Academy. He plans to take part in the gift exchange on Christmas Day, and expressed surprise at the cultural magnitude of the holiday during his first real Christmas season.
“Christmas is a big deal, but I didn't realize how big it was until [now],” he said. “It's totally different when you compare living with yourself with living with an American family. I'm having a great experience with them.”
Without a trace of resentment, Diome points out that his experience would never have happened in Senegal. Maybe that speaks to a secular edict for the holiday season: to reach out to the members of the community who have nowhere to go. And that, for Diome, is the epitome of the studying abroad experience.
“I'm not just interested in learning about math, or economics,” Diome said. “It's also the people, the culture, the geographical regions.”
Photo: Flickr / nabeel_yoosuf
Jon Christian is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Christian.