The holiday season is a time for friends, family and celebration. However, when you arrive in a new country oceans away from home, it can be an isolating experience.
Enter the Reeves Center at the College of William and Mary’s Global Friends Program, which matches international students with people living in the Williamsburg community.
Rather than giving students a place to live, local families get together with students, acting as a friendly face in a new place.
“These are kids thousands of miles away from home, no family, nobody to be there for them and so (my wife and I) thought (Global Friends) would be neat to do and we’d be exposed to other cultures and keep us in touch with younger generations,” said Rob Rubenstein, who has hosted students through the Global Friends program for seven years.
Rubenstein said while most people will take on a student for a year, he stays with his matches throughout their time at William and Mary.
“(The students) became part of our family,” Rubenstein said. “Our two original students became very close, one is up in Washington (D.C.) now. When my wife passed away (in May) she drove down for the funeral.”
One of the things Rubenstein said he and his wife liked to do was take students out to dinner at least once a month.
But one of Rubenstein’s favorite memories was when a past student and her boyfriend cooked them a traditional Chinese dinner.
“They took over our kitchen and it was like watching a choreographed dance. These two got into the kitchen and without even talking to each other — it was like they were dancing around each other,” Rubenstein recalled. “(My wife) and I were sitting there watching them and they said ‘Why don’t you go in another room, let us take care of everything,’ but we were enjoying watching them cook together. It was a lot of fun.”
While they are Jewish, around finals time Rubenstein said he and his wife would take the students to dinner at the Ford’s Colony Country Club to eat and look at the Christmas decorations.
“There were times where (the country club) had huge displays of Gingerbread Houses … so we’d show them the festive side of what goes on around here,” Rubenstein said. “We’d drive them around so they can see the lights on the houses and of course take them through Colonial Williamsburg.”
Rubenstein said most international students either go home or travel for winter break. However, he’s had his international students and their friends come over to share their big family Thanksgiving.
“(The students) were playing with my grandchildren, and they were interacting with everybody who was here, you know our family is spread out throughout the U.S. so they got exposed to people in different parts of the country,” Rubenstein said. “(My wife and I) enjoyed watching (the students) interact and seeing the look of pleasure on their faces.”
One thing the students were enamored with, Rubinstein said, was seeing all the small children.
“(The students) came from families where they only had one child in each family, and here they were seeing lots of children,” Rubenstein said. “Hallie (his granddaughter) became like a sister to some (of the students).”
Rubenstein said most of what he does through Global Friends, is make the students feel they have a home away from home.
“We are giving these folks a sense of family, someone they can call if they need to,” Rubenstein said. “We’re also just there if they want us to help them with their English, or decide they’re staying in the United States … just making them feel comfortable.”
Ronghong Dai, a William and Mary junior from China who Rubenstein is hosting, has been visiting Rubenstein since her freshman year at the college.
“I feel like I have become part of his family,” Dai said. "Which is great because I can ask him everything about American culture that I don't understand, but I would be kind of embarrassed to ask my classmates.”
Gérard Chouin, associate professor of history and director of medieval and Renaissance studies at William and Mary, said some students who are newer to the states might not have a place to go for the holidays.
“I think it’s really important for students who have nowhere to go to have families hosting them,” Chouin said. “It’s just about extending your family.”
Chouin said because his family has not been in the states long, they have only hosted one student over Christmas so far.
During his first Christmas in the U.S., Chouin was separated from his family and spent it with colleagues.
“Since the age of 23 I think I’ve been a foreigner because I left France and worked abroad, so most of my adult life, I spent it as a guest somewhere — so I can appreciate how important it is to mark this very special time and extend your hand to people who are coming from elsewhere,” Chouin said.
“For me, it's even more natural to do that because for a long time people were extending their hands to me, so its just a way of giving back as we say.”
To learn more about the Reeves Center’s Global Friends Program or to find out how to get involved, visit wm.edu/offices/revescenter.
Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.