Pairing and sharing

Posted on Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Gabrielle Fontaine, Marielle Fontaine, Robert Fontaine, Anne-Marie Fontaine, Viyash Murugesan and Shunichiro Nakao around a dinner table.

(Left to right) Gabrielle Fontaine, Marielle Fontaine, Robert Fontaine, Anne-Marie Fontaine, Viyash Murugesan and Shunichiro Nakao.

By Mike Foster

Thanks to uOttawa’s Holiday Pairing Program, several uOttawa staff and professors were able to invite students alone in Ottawa on December 25 to join them for holiday feasts and good company.

Created in 2007, the pairing program matches uOttawa staff and faculty (including, this past Christmas, President Allan Rock) with students who are far away from family or whose friends have all left Ottawa for the winter break.

For the past five years, Anne-Marie Fontaine, reunion coordinator for Alumni Relations, has invited overseas students to join the Christmas dinner that she jointly hosts with two other families in Orleans. When you have enough food for 20 guests, a couple of extra seats at the table is no trouble at all, she says.

“We just invite whoever is alone at Christmas. The family that hosts cooks the turkey and the rest of us bring all the extras — pierogis, cabbage rolls, lasagna, veggies — we all pitch in. There’s always loads to eat,” says Fontaine. She and her husband Robert can relate to what it is like to be away from friends and family over the holidays. They were away from home while they were teaching English on an exchange in Lille, France, in the mid-1970s.

This year, Shunichiro Nakao, from Japan, and Viyash Murugesan, from India, joined the Fontaines.

Murugesan, a first-year mechanical engineering student from Rajapalayam, a small town in Tamil Nadu, said he probably would have spent Christmas Day wandering through the streets of Ottawa if he had not joined the pairing program.

“This is my first visit to Canada and my first visit out of my country. Although I am Hindu, I usually spend Christmas at my Christian friend’s home with their family and friends,” said Murugesan. “I don’t have many friends here so I thought it would be a good idea to go to a party to meet new people.”

Nakao, who is studying for a master’s of science degree in epidemiology, is from Shinjuku ward in Tokyo.

“I wanted to have a wonderful Canadian Christmas and meet new people. This is an amazing program,” said Nakao.

Sophie Wauquier, who organizes the program at the International Office, said that this year the program had a waiting list of several staff members and professors willing to host.

“In the past eight years, this was truly a first. I’ve always had more international students and not enough staff members to match them with,” said Wauquier.

However, after a last-minute email to 3,000 international students, she managed to pair up 26 international students and one Canadian student — Deborah Joyce, from Newfoundland — with welcoming homes.

Joyce and German exchange student Vera Huwe were surprised to discover they would be sitting down with Allan Rock and his wife, Debby.

Allan Rock, Deborah Joyce and Debby Rock.

Allan Rock, Deborah Joyce and Mr. Rock's wife, Debby Hanscom.

“When I realized the host was (Rock), I was very excited and shocked that he was involved in the hosting program,” said Joyce, a second-year BA honours student with a specialization in psychology. “Had I not (participated) in this program, I would have had a quiet Christmas dinner at home by myself.

“Many topics were discussed throughout the evening …. We discussed the current situation with Syrian refugees and we talked about our own families and personal backgrounds.”

Huwe, who is studying for a master’s in economics, said, “It was really an amazing evening. Everybody was really open and interested so we had a lot of nice conversations and laughs.”

On the menu, which Huwe described as “delicious,” were turkey, cranberry sauce, vegetables, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and dessert.

“It was a terrific dinner party, and the presence of the two students made it all the more memorable,” said Rock.

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