MIDDLEBURY — Green bean casserole, cranberry sauce and Aunt Betty’s traditional, unidentifiable Jell-O salad aside, some students at Middlebury College do not even know what Thanksgiving — a uniquely American holiday — actually is.
In his freshman year, Aubrey Dube, a junior from Botswana, went home with his roommate to Westchester, N.Y., and experienced his first Thanksgiving.
“It was weird because people eat until they drop,” Dube said. “I thought, ‘Wait, what? Are we seriously doing this?’ They were eating and taking breaks and going back to eat.”
Dube had always heard that Americans tended toward gluttony, but he had never witnessed such practices firsthand.
“This part of America is really different,” Dube said. “Vermont doesn’t really fit the stereotype that the rest of the country gives out. Thanksgiving was my first confirmation of that stereotype.”
But Dube wasn’t complaining — he loved the traditional turkey-mashed-potato-cranberry-sauce combination.
Like many international students at Middlebury, Dube has relied on the kindness of the Middlebury community for his Thanksgiving meal.
Cornwall resident Roth “T” Tall has often volunteered to host international students at his home for Thanksgiving dinner. Tall and his wife, Cy, have acted as host parents on and off over the past 10 years to one or more Middlebury students — they have had their host student over for the occasional meal, stored dorm room items in their attic over the summer and taken the students’ parents out to dinner during graduation.
But even when the Talls have not officially served as a host family for an international student, they have had anywhere from one to six students take part in their Thanksgiving Day celebration in any given year.
“It’s always gone extremely well,” T Tall said. “Depending on the weather, we’ve taught them how to make cider and introduced to them to the products that are uniquely New England.“
This year, Tall has extended the invitation to three Middlebury students.
“We’ll start around noon on Thursday,” he said. “I’m going to pick the kids up in front of Carr (Hall), and we live right out here in Cornwall.”
Tall contacted Kathy Foley-Giorgio, associate dean and director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), about connecting with students over the break. Tall and Foley-Giorgio were both instrumental in the creation of the Friends of International Students host family program roughly ten years ago.
“Historically, there have been many different approaches to Thanksgiving Break support for students staying on campus,” Foley-Giorgio wrote in e-mail. “Some years we had meals organized on campus at the PALANA (Pan-African, Latino, Asian, and Native American) House and other times, small group gatherings with food donated to the students who stayed and other years we did more of a matching with local invitations to community members’ homes.”
Foley-Giorgio, though she will be out of town for the actual holiday, plans to connect with the two students that she hosts later in the weekend. Sophomores Apurva Damani and Jiawei Yu will be joining her family to watch her 10-year-old son’s basketball game and to partake in a home-cooked meal. Host families are not required to cook for their students over the breaks, but they are encouraged to spend time with their student during their break from classes.
Jean Bergesen of Middlebury and her husband, Robert, have hosted “a lot of international students” over the past few years including May 2010 graduate Anthony Manyuru from Nairobi, Kenya, and his older brother Jimmy (Class of 2008).
“I don’t think that we ever did Thanksgiving with them,” Jean Bergesen said. “The reason for that is that we now spend the winter in Florida, so we were often not in Middlebury at Thanksgiving time, though we celebrated many, many meals at our house — birthdays and lots of other times. I have always loved to cook different cuisines, and having such a variety of students, I had a great time coming up with recipes.”
Though they might not have had turkey on Thursday, Bergesen’s students still felt completely included.
“My host family was always gone for Thanksgiving, but they would have an early Thanksgiving dinner for us — me, and two other international kids,” Anthony Manyuru recalled.
Khanna’s host family, too, will be out of town during the holiday, so she has opted to stay on campus.
“They are visiting their family in Pennsylvania, and they actually offered to take me with them,” she said. “Host families here are really incredible. But I decided to turn them down because I wanted to stay here and do work.”
Instead, Khanna and two of her friends will be eating dinner with Carolyn Kuebler, the managing editor of the “New England Review,” the literary magazine for which Khanna interns.
Other Middlebury College faculty and staff, including Associate Professor of Economics Jessica Holmes and Charles A. Dana Professor of Mathematics John Emerson, have also invited students into their homes.
Families in the area — like those of Tall, Bergesen, Kuebler, Holmes and Emerson — love having the opportunity to meet the students and to share an American tradition with them.
“This community does reach out and rather enjoys learning the cultures of the various students that are here,” Tall said. “It just depends on the student. The student is given the option about whether or not they want to do this.”
According to Foley-Giorgio, for international students, “the Thanksgiving holiday itself does not have strong meaning so it isn’t as though they are ‘missing’ something.” But for those students who have not made a connection with a local family or professor but would still like to mark the holiday, there are additional ways that they can celebrate.
On Tuesday, the ISSS office sent an e-mail to students informing them of opportunities to volunteer at the Charter House, to attend a Community Thanksgiving Dinner at the Veterans for Foreign Wars headquarters on Exchange Street or to attend the International Students Organization “The Dining Halls are Closed” Potluck Dinner hosted on campus.
“The thing that makes it OK is that the international community is so close,” Khanna said.
“People generally know who is staying on campus, so they make plans to get together and cook meals or hang out. A lot of students stay over winter break, too.”
Khanna, whose family is now living in Dubai, typically only goes home for the winter and summer breaks, though she has friends who have not been home in over a year. But according to Khanna and others, through the efforts of both the ISSS staff and local community members, international students find themselves surrounded by a network of people looking to welcome them into their homes for the holidays, and otherwise.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” Tall said. “And the plus side is that you get to meet a lot of new people from different cultures and who have different customs.”
Tamara Hilmes is at firstname.lastname@example.org.