BLOOMINGTON — The tiny kitchen was crowded and a whirlwind of activity, with a lot of stirring, chopping and chatting going on — just like many kitchens during the holiday season.

But this one was a bit different.

Those doing the cooking were from China, Vietnam, Ghana and Indonesia.

They were international students at Illinois Wesleyan University, staying around campus during the semester break.

“We cannot go back home now. Living in a big house like a family is a nice break,” said Air Li, a freshman in physics and environmental studies. “When I’m in China, I like cooking with my family. So, while I’m here, it makes me feel like I’m cooking for my new family.”

Cooking and sharing meals together is an important part of socializing among international students at Illinois State University, too, said Matt Schwab, ISU coordinator of International House programs.

Manchester and Hewitt residence halls stay open during the holiday break, but there is no meal service. Both have kitchens the residents can use and students can check out pots and pans at the front desk, Schwab said.

“Some say music is the universal language, but I kind of think cooking is,” said Reenie Bradley, IWU international student/scholar adviser.

As students chopped chicken and vegetables at a university guest house recently, Bradley urged caution.

“You guys are making me nervous,” Bradley said. “We’re not going to the E.R. tonight.”

Not all students stay in town, even if they can’t go home for the holidays.

The vast majority either travel around the United States — usually in small groups — or visit a fellow student, Schwab said.

Disneyland, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco are popular destinations, he said.

Last Christmas, Nii Akuetteh Tetteh of Ghana, an IWU sophomore in accounting, spent the break with extended family in Tennessee. This year, he is staying in Illinois because he will start an internship in Chicago in January.

Brigitta Jakob, an IWU freshman in economics and international business, celebrates both Christmas and Chinese New Year back home in Indonesia. Her mother in Christian; her father is Buddhist.

“We go to church and have lunch together, but we don’t usually decorate,” Jakob said, adding that she likes seeing the Christmas lights here.

Cong Vu of Vietnam transferred to IWU after spending his freshman year in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“People in Illinois are friendlier and easy to talk to,” said the accounting and marketing major.

“There’s a saying, ‘Go big or go home,’” Vu said. “I would prefer to go big than go home.”

Schwab tries to connect international students with host families in the community. Arranging such interactions “takes it back to the university’s mission of education — including global education,” he said.

One of those community host parents is Lindsay Ziegenhorn of Towanda.

After the recent snowstorm, she invited some international students to join her family sledding at Bloomington’s Highland Golf Course.

“To see the reaction of some of them” to their first time sledding “was an amazing moment,” Zigenhorn said.

She also has had students over for a family game night with her first-grader and third-grader and for home-cooked meals.

“My husband is a phenomenal cook,” she said.

Seven countries — in addition to the United States — were represented at her Thanksgiving table.

“I speak from a mom’s heart,” Ziegenhorn said, explaining her involvement. “They are far from home — miles and miles away. It was a natural fit.”

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Being an international student isn’t easy, given our complex culture and language. Assistance must come from various sources, including events and companionship like this. A new award-winning worldwide book/ebook to help anyone coming to the US is "What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.” It paints a revealing picture of America for those who will benefit from a better understanding, including international students. Endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it also identifies “foreigners” who became successful in the US and how they contributed to our society, including students.
A chapter on education identifies schools that are free and explains how to be accepted to an American university and cope with a new culture, friendship process and classroom differences they will encounter. Some stay after graduation. It has chapters that explain how US businesses operate and how to get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to work for an American firm here or overseas. It also has chapters that identify the most common English grammar and speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.
Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments, immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow students, and books like this to extend a cultural helping hand so we all have a win-win situation. Good luck to all wherever you study!

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