Pitt’s Student Government Board announced last summer that the University’s winter break would be extended by a full week. The extension was applauded by most students — but for Pitt’s international student population that doesn’t go home, this may have meant a longer time away from family and friends both at home and abroad.
According to Pitt’s Office of Institutional Research, there are 3,129 international students from 103 countries at Pitt’s main campus, who make up 10.9 percent of the total student population. For many of these students, traveling home could take more than a day, and airfare could cost hundreds of dollars. This combination of so little time off at such a high cost often discourages international students from traveling home.
For students like Qin Xiao , the trip home is more than 20 hours. Qin, a junior biological science major, said he only goes home to Beijing during summer breaks, since spring and winter breaks are “too short” for him to travel.
“I go to Chicago, or somewhere that way to transfer, but the total journey is going to be like 20 [hours],” Qin said.
Finding a flight can also impede a student’s travels. For 20-year-old literature major Nicole Boden, finding a direct flight from Pittsburgh to Birmingham, England, is unlikely, but when she does find one, a round-trip flight can cost upwards of $700. She doesn’t go home much since traveling is often expensive and draining.
“It’s like eight hours if you do it in one go. But it’s so exhausting for me,” Boden said. “Once I get to the U.K., I then have to travel home for a few hours and, by that point, I’m exhausted.”
Some international students are willing to overlook these challenges for the sake of a quality higher education. According to the 2016-2017 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education, STEM majors are the most popular fields of study with international students. Looking to go into health care, Qin was attracted to Pitt’s prestigious medical school.
“It [was] really my parent’s decision,” Qin said. “Before, I was thinking about going to medical school, and medical school here at Pitt is really, really good.”
Other international students may come to Pitt as part of international exchange programs. Boden attended University of Exeter in Exeter, England, for two years and is spending her last year abroad at Pitt. In choosing where to study abroad, she said Pittsburgh seemed like “quite a diverse city.”
“There are probably eight choices, and this is the one that appealed to me the most,” Boden said. “Exeter is small. It’s got everything you need, but it’s tiny. And here, I just feel like there’s more going on.”
Marion Hastings, 20, is a French international major studying international policy. Like Boden, she is spending her third and final year abroad. Originally from Lyon, France, she attended the Paris Institute of Political Studies for two years.
Hastings, who went home for four days over winter break, said going home for such a short period of time is the “worst thing you can do” because it takes three to four days to recover from jet lag — the same amount of time she was home.
“When I came back in the U.S., I had to adapt to the American hour again,” Hastings said. “If I had been in France for two or three days, I would have not even tried to go back on the French hour. But for four or five days, I tried. So I finally got over it, then I had to adapt again to the jet lag of the U.S.”
If they do go home, many international students are unable to see their friends and family because of conflicting vacation schedules. Eleanor Mackintosh, 20, is also a literature major from University of Exeter. Originally from London, Mackintosh said Pitt’s break schedules conflict with her friends’ and family’s vacations.
“It doesn’t map onto any of our holidays back home, so nobody else would be on break,” Mackintosh said. “My family would still either be at work or school, and so would all my friends.”
In China, breaks at universities are planned according to the Chinese New Year, which can be offset from Western calendars by one to two months. Qin said this is the case with many of his friends in China.
“My friends in China, they don’t really have winter break, or their winter break is delayed because we have Chinese New Year,” Qin said. “The break times are different. So if I go back to China, I only see my parents, not really my friends, because they’re still in university.”
Technology makes it easier for students to stay in touch with their relatives when they’re unable to travel home. For Qin, video-chat apps like FaceTime make it easy for him to connect with his loved ones.
“I do have strong connection with my parents, but I don’t really get homesick … because of FaceTime … and you have messages,” Qin said.
Mackintosh is used to being away from her family since Exeter is still far from her home. She said homesickness in America isn’t much different from homesickness at Exeter, especially since she regularly video-chats her family.
“Usually I kind of don’t notice [homesickness]. Just in everyday life, you kind of don’t think about it,” Mackintosh said. “I Skype my family and friends all the time, so I don’t really feel like I’m away from them.”
Hastings said technology allows her to contact her family every few days. She tends to feel homesick when she experiences more difficult times. However, she tries to focus on her studies and traveling to distract her from homesickness.
“There have been some times where it was harder, like at the very beginning of the year it was … hard being far away. But then it was fine,” Hastings said. “I don’t want to be homesick and missing my family when I should just be enjoying myself.”
Boden, Mackintosh and Hastings all decided to explore the United States over spring break because a week wasn’t enough time to go home. Boden and Mackintosh traveled to New Orleans. Hastings traveled to cities along the western United States, including Denver, Salt Lake City and San Francisco. Qin decided to stay on campus, like he did over winter break.
“Two to three weeks is too short, so I just stay here,” Qin said. “Just hung out with my friends who [were] staying … it’s not really a big deal.”