Local families in Richmond will open their homes to VCU students from all over the world this Thanksgiving to share culture, food and lasting memories.
Organized by Pamela Haney, Student Engagement Coordinator in the Global Education Office, the international Thanksgiving involves around 45 families and 80 to 100 students. There is an application process for the program, and Haney said she takes into account dietary and religious needs of students as well as the needs of the hosting family. This year, Haney said VCU students from Saudi Arabia, India, China, Kuwait, Iran, Argentina, Spain and many more have signed up to participate.
“About 75 percent of international students in the United States never enter an American home during their study,” Haney said. “We want to give students the opportunity to be in a home, learn more about American culture and an important holiday … and also to give the volunteers an opportunity to learn about another culture.”
Haney said most families host a small number of students, to promote conversation and interaction between cultures. Some families have participated nearly every year, and Haney said a few students sign up for every Thanksgiving spent at VCU. Local residents Harry and Tammy Gill said this Thanksgiving will be the fourth they have opened their homes.
“We have always enjoyed having international students in our home,” Tammy Gill said. “We think it’s important to expose our family and friends, to not have a limited worldview.”
Tammy Gill said the families are informed about the cultures of each student participating. One year, students from Saudi Arabia came to her home and she was told leaving food on the plate was seen as insulting to the host. When the students arrived, Tammy Gill made sure to clarify the students did not have to eat everything they tried.
“Toward the end of the meal they called me ‘Aunt Tammy,’” Tammy Gill said. “We became family right away.”
Tammy Gill said they are expecting 35 people to eat Thanksgiving at their home this year. Harry Gill said he is planning on cooking four turkeys and several vegetarian dishes to accommodate the international students participating. Other family members and friends are expected to bring a variety of casseroles, cakes, pies and rolls.
Harry Gill said hosting Thanksgiving dinner is good for both the students who visit and his family.
“I would encourage anybody to do it,” Harry Gill said.
Kunal Saxena, a doctoral candidate in the VCU School of Pharmacy has participated in the Thanksgiving program since arriving in the U.S. from India in 2010. Before sitting down for his first Thanksgiving dinner, Saxena said he had only experienced the holiday through Hollywood movies.
“A lot of movies don’t actually show how families get together on Thanksgiving,” Saxena said. “I thought everyone was far away from each other and eats by themselves.”
Saxena said he enjoyed his first Thanksgiving with an American family, and everyone came together just as his family does in India.
“My favorite is the turkey,” Saxena said. “I also like the pecan pie because I am a pie person. I can eat pie anytime.”
Saxena said he was able to learn about American life in a traditional way during Thanksgiving, and he was able to share his own culture with the family.
“It’s the kind of experience that can’t be substituted by any other means,” Saxena said.
For international students, Saxena recommended getting involved in the program especially since most are far away from their families.
“Do not spend Thanksgiving alone,” Saxena said. “You can sleep whenever you have the time … but Thanksgiving day you should definitely utilize the opportunity to visit an American family.”