December 2017

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It's here! That most wonderful time of the year – when we turn our houses upside down and inside out, clearing the clutter and scrubbing them clean; when we raid grocery stores for the ingredients to make the pastelles, ham and turkey, ponche de crème, sorrel and fruit cake; when we flock to the malls and flood the streets of Port of Spain (and the digital citizens among us are happy click-clacking away at our favourite virtual stores), to find the perfect gifts – when we prepare our homes for our loved ones who are sure come a-knocking, spreading their Christmas cheer. What is Christmas, after all, if not for those near and dear?

But what if your loved ones weren’t near and you had no chance of spending time with them this Christmas (or all the Christmases over the next three or four years)? That’s the situation of many of The UWI’s regional and international students. Unable to return home during the holidays for one reason or another – maybe because of financial issues, classes over the Christmas break, or unsavoury conditions in their home countries (let’s not forget the islands that have been ravaged by nature over the past months) – there are members of the UWI family who find themselves spending Christmas alone, on a barely-populated campus.

“I was really sad when I realised my first Christmas away from home was coming up,” says Grenadian and recent UWI graduate, Jefferson Parris. He came to Trinidad in 2015 to begin his degree and, not only was that the first time he’d ever visited Trinidad and Tobago, it “was my first time actually flying out from Grenada,” he said. “I was despondent. Back home we would have a gift exchange. We would visit a lot of family members and [do] all the good things that come with Christmas. I would be missing out.”

Until, that is, he was invited to spend Christmas day with another member of the UWI family and he experienced a Trini Christmas.

Kathy-Ann Lewis, Manager of the Careers, Co-Curricular and Community Engagement department at UWI’s Division of Student Services and Development (DSSD), invited Jefferson to spend Christmas day with her family, as a part of the Campus’ Christmas at UWI, Host-a-Student programme. The DSSD, headed by Dr. Deirdre Charles has been running the programme for several years now. Josann Greene of the DSSD, who has been managing it, explained that Christmas at UWI comprises three components – the Student Christmas Dinner, a $20+ Charity Drive and the Host-A-Student initiative – all intended to help foreign students feel a bit more “at home, while away from home.”

The Host-a-Student component was introduced in 2014, specifically for students staying on Campus over the entire Christmas break. “Part of [the DSSD’s] mandate has always been student-centeredness,” said Josann. The DSSD caters to student needs and feeling at home and happy during their time at UWI is a student need. Since Christmas is an especially difficult time to be away from one’s family, the Division wanted to do “something that would bring a little cheer to [these students’] lives … to give them, throughout that break, something family-oriented,” which they inevitably miss staying on campus for Christmas, she explained.

“There’s no life, really, on campus … You think you’re just going to be in your room, until the semester reopens and your friends come back from home.”

The Host-a-Student programme gives these students “an opportunity to have a family experience and gain an extended family,” while they’re away from their own. They’re a part of The UWI community and this goes beyond academics, she says.

“We want them to feel loved by their university. To feel cared for and supported, so we thought that extending the [Christmas at UWI] programme to facilitate this aspect would give the student a more personal touch, that one-on-one love touch, from the University.”

The DSSD extends this touch by liaising with the halls of residence administrators for a list of students who are staying on campus, and by reaching out to all UWI’s faculty and staff to find potential hosts. Interested faculty and staff indicate their preferences – the number of students they’d like to host and when they’d like to host the students, for example – and are paired with students. Everyone’s Christmas traditions will differ, said Josann. “Whereas one staff member may have a huge family get-together on Christmas or Boxing Day, another may go to a Christmas event, like a Christmas concert, and they are allowed to take the student with them. There’s no one structured way. You can involve them in whatever you are doing for the season.” Making contact and arrangements for their time together, is now in the hosts’ hands.

So far, the response from UWI’s faculty and staff has been heartening. In 2016, Josann said, there weren’t enough students to pair with all the hopeful hosts.

Faizal Mohammed, a past employee of the Management Audit Department – he retired last year – remembers his disappointment last Christmas when he learnt that there were no students for him to host. He and his family participated in the programme during the two previous years and were happy to open their home on Christmas Day to students from Jamaica, Barbados and the Solomon Islands, where, they learnt, “shark is revered as a god and nobody eats shark over there,” he said. Their Solomon Islands guest kept in touch and “she came and sang a song and acted as a hostess,” for his retirement/60th birthday party last year. “She was very, very warm towards us,” recalls his wife, Carmen.

Marissa Brooks, who works at The UWI’s Human Resources Department, hosted students during the 2015 and 2016 Christmas periods. “It's always exciting because it is the first time meeting these persons and my family looks forward to learning about them and their backgrounds,” she says. “Last year we had graduate students from the Samoan Islands and we were so happy to learn of their cultures.” The students also enjoyed themselves, she said. “The students fit in as if we knew them all along … We had an outdoor buffet setting for lunch and the weather was incredible. The students got to relax and eat for the entire day!”

One of the students she hosted, Matthew Kensen, a PhD student hailing from the South Pacific, attests to this. He enjoyed “seeing and experiencing what a Trini Christmas is like. Family, food, friends, and sorrel and Ponche de Crème,” he laughs.

Marissa says that the Host-a-Student initiative has particularly touched her. “Since becoming involved, I have initiatives where I help at least one student throughout the year whom I realize needs financial assistance,” she says, and she encourages colleagues to sign up for the Host-a-Student programme, “all the time. Christmas is about sharing and spreading joy and love. I couldn't imagine being away from my family for Christmas, so I believe that people who can afford to host others should open their homes during the holidays.”

Faizal agrees wholeheartedly.

“Thank God we are in a fortunate position to help others right now,” and to let them know that “somebody cares enough for them to do something like this.” Carmen adds that, as a parent, “I’d like someone to do this for my children and make them feel warm. It was a pleasure having them dine with us.” Although he is retired, Faizal and his family are looking forward to being hosts again this year.

As for Jefferson, his initial sadness was broken from the moment Kathy-Ann and her family picked him up on Christmas day. “Miss Lewis started talking to me and my spirits were lifted … She told me ‘Jeff, you’re going to have fun, you’re going to be happy, just like if you were back in Grenada.’ I said, ‘Miss Lewis … I am hard to please’ … She exceeded my expectations ten times [over].” He recalls the warmth of her family, the mountains of food he was offered, the Christmas present she gave him (a long-sleeved t-shirt in his favourite colour, red), singing karaoke and the invitations to come back the following year. “I didn’t know these people and what shocked me was that they were greeting me as if they knew me for years … They made me feel like family … I was blown away.”

Asked if he’d recommend that other regional and international students take advantage of the experience, he says, “110 per cent! … The experience is phenomenal.” Though, at first, he feared he would miss out on the Christmas that he’s used to, Jefferson shares that he still felt “the love and togetherness, the energy, the laughter, all the joys that come with Christmas … That experience showed me that no, you could be away from home and still, if you’re in Trinidad and meet the right people, you could have a blast.”

Among the activities hosted by the Division of Student Services and Development (DSSD), is a Christmas dinner for the foreign students staying in Trinidad during the holidays. Last year, they asked the students to tell them what they traditionally do at Christmas. The responses are from regional students and it is always interesting to see the similarities in the way Caribbean people celebrate. One thing that everyone can agree on is that universally, the two most common elements of every festival – no matter what kind – are food and family.

Here are some responses.

At my home, we usually do Christmas cleaning and change the drapes. We also make fruit cake. Also, we have a special Christmas dinner where we have beef ham and smoked chicken; something we only do at Christmas. It’s also a time to spend with the extended family.

Going to Queen’s Park on Christmas morning in your best clothes, and admiring the old men dressed in their colourful pimp suits with matching walking canes and hats. The Royal Police Band plays beautiful music.

Harvest, a church programme where churches, specifically Baptist and Methodist, give thanks for the harvest of the year. They bring fruits and vegetables and other local delicacies.

During the Christmas season, family members come together and have Christmas dinner. Breakfast includes ackee and saltfish, boiled bananas and dinner includes roasted beef, baked chicken, rice and peas and a season’s favourite, sorrel.

We paint the house, change the curtains, clean and decorate. We bake fruit cakes and we make sorrel. We have Grand Market on Christmas Eve where all the vendors are out till Christmas morning selling all kinds of merchandise at very cheap prices. We play music on that night and spend it with our closest friends and family. At Christmas you get to see all the family members you haven’t seen for a long time.