International students learn to cope with harsh winter

Even for people accustomed to Wisconsin winters, this year – already stacking up to be among the coldest on record for Madison – has been more challenging than usual.

Imagine then how the experience must be for newly arrived international students – especially those coming from tropical climates and have never even seen snow.

For starters, international students need to deal with the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit temperatures. A reading of zero in the former – which is used in all but a few countries – feels quite different than zero in the latter – which is used in the United States.

Indeed, the recent stretch of sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures and bitter wind chills has been particularly jarring for the international community at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

International Student Services (ISS) has stepped up efforts to help these students adjust to the harsh weather.

“When students enroll in the spring, they are completely unprepared,” says Martha Querin-Schultz, university services associate at ISS. “This winter especially was dangerous. Our skin could have frozen if it was exposed to the cold even for minutes.”

Razan Al Dagher began monitoring weather conditions in Madison before traveling here from her home in Kuwait.

“I think I’m adjusting pretty well to the weather,” Al Dagher says. “I’ve learned to layer up and dress warm, though this was not something I was always accustomed to. I understand temperatures in Celsius better. Back home, it never got below zero so I never experienced snow.”

Throughout the brutal month of January, ISS used social media to reach out to the international community, inviting students to stop by the Red Gym for hot cocoa and tea, relax and warm up. In addition, ISS Director Laurie Cox and Querin-Schultz led an effort to distribute free mittens, scarves, gloves and hats.

“Many students assume that sweatshirts and hoods will keep them warm enough,” says Querin-Schultz. “They don’t understand the severity of the weather here, particularly this winter, which is rare.”

Many students ask if Wisconsin usually gets this cold and if it is possible to ever get accustomed to such frigid weather, she adds.

“In my opinion, we have to always be prepared for the cold – it’s Wisconsin! That’s why we love it!” Querin-Schultz says. “It can extremely cold in the winters and extremely warm in the summers.”

She adds, “It is very important for students to watch out for their peers. If you see someone who isn’t dressed warm enough, talk to them and make them understand that it’s unsafe.”

A few years ago, a student from India got frostbite a few and had to go home. “If only someone spoke to him about dressing warm, he probably could have survived the winter like all of us,” Querin-Schultz says.

Al Dagher, a sophomore majoring in economics, says she was excited about snow at first and even enjoyed it. Gradually, she became uncomfortable with the mud and slush.

“I went sledding down Bascom Hill one day and didn’t dress warm enough. My legs turned so blue that I had to soak them in hot water for awhile for them to return to their normal color,” she says.

Victoria Khoo, a newly arrived freshman from Singapore, got an abrupt introduction to Wisconsin winters on her first day: “The first step I took was a tumble, after slipping on this mysterious demon known as black ice – a truly interesting way to start my first day! I’ve adjusted well to the cold, but I definitely don’t enjoy it. I also had no idea of what frostbite was.”

“I was prepared for the winters here because my peers from my university in France, who studied here, talked about the extreme cold,” says Arthur Binninger, a junior majoring in political science.  “During break this December, I took my winter gear home to France, thinking I could put them to good use! But France never gets this cold.”

Binninger adds, “I don’t mind the winter weather as long as it’s sunny. And when it snows, the weather’s warm.  The only thing I hate is wind and sometimes it’s so windy that walking to class for even 10 minutes can be such a hassle. The one way you can truly survive Madison winters is to dress as warm as you can, which I’ve definitely learned to do. “

— by Neha Alluri