While many in the Penn community are gearing up for Thanksgiving break, whether it’s boarding trains, planes, and buses to celebrate with friends and family or preparing for the big meal locally, it can also be a lonely time for some.
That’s why Penn’s Assembly of International Students (AIS) is committed to bringing a sense of holiday belonging to international students staying on campus during the break with its Thanksgiving Meal initiative.
“For some international students, this might even be their first year away from home,” says Heather Shieh, president of AIS.
Since 2018, AIS has matched more than 100 international undergrads, graduate, and Ph.D. students with a faculty or staff partner who invites them in for a holiday meal. The effort went virtual during the pandemic, and in-person gatherings resumed last year. This year, 31 students and eight faculty and staff are taking part.
“In the true spirit of Thanksgiving, the initiative has been a great way for faculty and staff to give back to the Penn community,” says Shieh, a fourth-year economics major at the Wharton School from Melbourne, Australia.
Filip Manjevic, a second-year from Helsingborg, Sweden, took advantage of the program last Thanksgiving, heading to the home of Arvind Bhusnurmath, a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer and Information Science.
“I hoped to understand how Thanksgiving works and how the holiday is celebrated. At the same time, I liked the potential of meeting new people and potentially finding more friends,” he says. “Coincidentally, Arvind turned out to be the computer science professor that I would have that next semester. It was an amazing first introduction of how he is as a person, and it feels like we became friends even before the class started.”
His favorite part of the experience was all the pie for dessert, playing board games after dinner, and meeting graduate students and other international students from places like Turkey and China, all sharing what different holidays they celebrate back home.
“Being able to go to such a holiday with welcoming people and experience Thanksgiving together to get a sense of belonging was wonderful and I am extremely thankful,” says Manjevic, who is majoring in economics and international relations in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Bhusnurmath was inspired to host the holiday because he remembers how hard it was to be an international student far from home with nowhere to go.
“I remember coming to the lab one Thanksgiving Day, and not only did the lab have nobody there but it just seemed like the whole universe had disappeared,” he says. He went to eat a meal on campus and then ended up coming back to the lab and falling asleep in his cubicle. “I remember waking up alone and just feeling like I don’t want to ever spend Thanksgiving like that again. Thankfully I didn’t have to, I eventually made friends who invited me to Thanksgiving. But I always reflect on that experience. I just don’t want an international student to go through that.”
Many students he hosts are majoring in subjects he’s never studied, and he and his wife love to hear about their classes and backgrounds. The students enjoy getting off campus and playing with the couple’s two attention-loving dogs. “Our dogs are completely nuts and don’t understand humans who do not pet them. So, the only requirement for an invite is ‘must love dogs,’” he says.
Julia Fox, an administrative assistant in the Weitzman School of Design who hosted several students at her home last year, says welcoming people who are new to the Thanksgiving holiday or away from loved ones was part of her upbringing.
“My parents always hosted our family’s Thanksgiving growing up, and we always welcomed friends, coworkers, and anyone else who wanted to join us, in addition to our boisterous family,” she says, noting her mom “would befriend someone at a grocery store or the library and invite them home for dinner.”
For Fox, it’s all about coming together and sharing a meal, regardless of differences.
“The spirit of sharing food, opinions, stories, and recipes and taking care of each other through this process is to me what the holiday is all about, and hosting students who cannot go home or have nowhere to go for the holiday is the perfect way to engage in this holiday,” she says. “I hope the students feel connected to and welcomed by our family as we eat and get to know each other.”
Thalia Franceska Prasetyo, from Jakarta, Indonesia, was among the international student guests at Fox’s home last Thanksgiving. She attended Penn last year as part of the International Guest Student Program in the College of Liberal & Professional Studies and is currently a fourth-year student at the University of Indonesia.
“At first, I wasn't quite sure what to do on Thanksgiving break. Honestly, I was a bit sad at the thought of spending my Thanksgiving break alone,” she says. “However, when I saw the AIS Thanksgiving Meal program on the Global Quakers newsletter, I had a little spark of joy. I thought it was very nice of the AIS to arrange a program for the exchange students to feel welcomed and included in the tradition, and I was thrilled to experience my very first Thanksgiving.”
She says she wanted to have a chance to learn more about Thanksgiving. “At that time, I was taking a class on early American history, and I wanted to experience the tradition firsthand. I have only seen Thanksgiving in popular media and literature, so I had no idea what people actually do in real life,” she says. “I also wanted to know how it feels like to eat dinner with an American family, and then see if I can find some similarities between the culture of my home country and in America.”
She loved every part of the experience, she says, and adds that “the thing that stood out to me the most is the amount of love and hospitality Julia’s family gave me. They made sure that I felt welcomed and made me feel like I was a part of the family. Everyone was eager to know about my family and asked about how Indonesians usually celebrate holidays. The conversations were lively, and I didn’t have to worry about not fitting in. After dinner, I played Pictionary with Julia and her brother. It was amusing and we laughed a lot. I also got to play with Julia’s cat and niece as well. It was very wholesome and fun.”
Like Manjevic, her favorite part of the meal was the pie for dessert, pumpkin and chocolate pecan pie, to be exact. “Also, I enjoyed the turkey with all the fixings. At first, I was skeptical about it, but it turned out to be amazing. I think cranberry sauce belongs together with the turkey. Everybody told me that you have to have an acquired taste to be able to like it, but in my opinion it tastes great!”
Nadir Sharif, senior associate director of Student Programs and Communications and MBA Career Advisor at the Wharton School, has hosted a number of Penn students for Thanksgiving the last few years, including when he was Stouffer College House dean. Like Bhusnurmath, he was also inspired by his time as an international undergraduate student. Bucknell, where he was studying, had an international friendship program at the time that connected local families with a student for the purpose of hosting them for holidays. His host parents ended up doing much more than that, becoming like a second family, he says. “The toast at my wedding was given by my host parents,” he says. “Because of that experience, I’ve always had a desire to support the international student population.”
He enjoys giving students far from home the feeling of family and seeing the connections that students from different countries, studying widely different topics at the undergraduate and graduate levels make with each other. He, his wife, and two young children have two cats, and he finds the students really enjoy playing and cuddling with them.
“Anything cute and cuddly can help students destress,” he says.
The most rewarding part of hosting is seeing students build new relationships. “We just have to provide the food, the family, homey feeling and then people will just get a plate, sit somewhere and then talk to somebody else,” he says. “And that to me is really fulfilling because I see in that the kind of community that I’ve always aspired to build.”
He encourages all faculty and staff to consider hosting and to not be deterred by thinking it must be formal, fancy, or in a spotless home.
“If you provide good food, good conversation, and a warm and welcoming space, that’s all you need,” he says. “Giving an international student the experience of a traditional U.S. holiday with a family is always very, very appreciated.”