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College students, staffers deal with being away from home for holidays

Megan Guza
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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Vinay Palakkode, 25, of Squirrel Hill, is a research assistant for professor Srinivasa Narasimham in the Illumination and Imaging Lab on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Oakland. He will be spending part of his Christmas break working in the lab. Many students who either don't celebrate the holidays or come from other countries find themselves staying near school during the break.
ptrnothome01122514
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Vinay Palakkode, 25, of Squirrel Hill, is a research assistant for professor Srinivasa Narasimham in the Illumination and Imaging Lab on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Oakland. He will be spending part of his Christmas break working in the lab.

As college students across the region packed cars to head home for a near monthlong winter break, Duquesne University senior Monica Chmiel was packing just a few things.

“I wish I could say that it is not hard to be away from your family at this time of year, but it surely is,” said Chmiel, 22, of North Bethlehem, a student manager for the Duquesne women’s basketball team.

With twice-a-week games and practices in between, the team members and managers took Christmas off but will be on the road Friday for a game in Bethlehem.

They are among the students at colleges and universities who don’t spend the holiday break with families in their hometowns. Instead they look to one another or to staff members to provide a familial atmosphere. Some host special dinners and get-togethers.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, student John Boddington said responsibility kept him from going home.

“Why not seize the opportunity to make money to go toward student loans, or rent or gas or groceries or tuition? I figure, why not work?” he said. “My family knows that I love them, and we’ll talk on the phone or Skype (on Christmas).”

Boddington, 23, from York works at Indiana’s Papa John’s. The pizza shop is not open on Christmas but, with many student workers away, there are shifts to pick up.

“I’m learning that it’s hard being an actual self-sufficient adult. And to drive 4 12 hours for one day — for a holiday that’s become so commercialized and materialistic — it’s not worth it to me,” Boddington said. “I’m looking forward to starting my own traditions.”

For others, home is just too far away.

Vinay Palakkode, a native of Kerla, India, will spend winter break at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is a graduate student research assistant in robotics.

“Winter break is a good time to do research,” said Palakkode, 25, who came to the university in spring. “You have a lot of free time, and you don’t have a lot of pressing deadlines or courses.”

Yet even with work to do, students who stay on campus seek companionship and ways to at least stave off boredom.

Joe DeCrosta, Duquesne’s director of international programs, said although many international students travel home — or take the opportunity to travel the country — those who stay have access to residence halls and meals at no extra charge.

Staff members on duty during break organize Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day meals. Some staff members invite students into their homes.

“The university has always been quite accommodating to students who are far from home during holiday breaks,” DeCrosta said.

Carnegie Mellon does not offer a special Christmas meal or event but offers group activities during the break, including afternoons of free ice skating at Schenley Rink or soap-making and biscotti-baking.

Global Pittsburgh, a Downtown-based nonprofit, hosts events for international students and professionals. Tom Buell Jr., the organization’s director of development and marketing, said staffers match individuals with families for the holidays.

Mana Yanagawa, 20, a Chatham University student from Japan, is staying with Carolyn Falk and her family in McCandless this week. Falk included Yanagawa in family outings to help her feel at home.

“The past few weekends, I was homesick,” said Yanagawa. “It was lonely in the dorms.”

Family in any form makes the distance from one’s own during the holidays bearable, Chmiel said.

“It helps to have a built-in family with the basketball team,” she said. “These players and coaches become a family. Knowing that people are there with you to make you smile when you feel a bit homesick definitely helps.”

Megan Guza is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-779-6902 or [email protected].

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