Something to be thankful for: Local families, VCU international students share Thanksgiving celebrations

Something to be thankful for: Local families, VCU international students share Thanksgiving celeb... [View Image]

Thanksgiving is a uniquely North American experience, with families in the U.S. and Canada spending the day together and offering thanks for the good things in their lives over the previous year. Some families in the Richmond area have expanded the reach of their Thanksgiving celebrations by sharing those experiences with students from around the world who are studying at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“VCU has been doing this since at least the 1990s,” said Pam Haney, student engagement coordinator at the Global Education Office. “We try to connect international students with community members to broaden the experiences of the students and to help Americans learn about other cultures.”

“We make it a priority to get students into a home as we are able because statistics show that 75 percent of the international students who study in the U.S. don’t get into an American home while they are here,” Haney said. Todd and Jill Vander Pol (fourth and fifth from the right) share their Thanksgiving celebration with VCU international students Mithun Mathew, kneeling in front, and Karthik Hegde, wearing the black jacket (ninth from the left.) The Vander Pols have invited international students and others from the area without families to take part in their annual celebration. Photo provided by Jill Vander Pol. [View Image]
Todd and Jill Vander Pol (fourth and fifth from the right) share their Thanksgiving celebration with VCU international students Mithun Mathew, kneeling in front, and Karthik Hegde, wearing the black jacket (ninth from the left.) The Vander Pols have invited international students and others from the area without families to take part in their annual celebration. Photo provided by Jill Vander Pol.

Todd and Jill Vander Pol have enjoyed hosting VCU international students over the years and welcomed Karthik Hegde and Mithun Mathew, both from India, into their Glen Allen home this year.

“We moved here 25 years ago and at our first Thanksgiving, we didn’t have any family around.  It was Todd and me and our 2-year-old daughter,” Jill said. “I was determined to never have that kind of experience again and so we started inviting people in the same circumstances – people who didn’t have families in the area and had nowhere else to go.”

The Vander Pols have not spent Thanksgiving alone since. This year, 31 people joined them. Some years, as many as 40 have shared in the daylong celebration.

Each year, the Thanksgiving meal is served promptly at 1 p.m. and house rules require that plates are passed from person to person to promote a feeling of family, rather than everyone serving themselves buffet style. All guests are seated at one of three tables in the same room. The meal lasted about two hours.

Todd Vander Pol said the discussion is as satisfying as the meal is filling.

“Everyone has to say individually what they are thankful for,” Todd said. “Jill and I grew up in rural South Dakota and we appreciate the blessings we have here and we enjoy sharing that with people from other countries.”

The yearly celebrations continue with football on television for those who want to watch but when the weather cooperates, many guests go outside to play a South Dakota game called “Bare Base.” As the afternoon becomes evening, everyone moves back inside for pie. After dessert, the board games come out and the celebration lasts until about 10 p.m.

“We now have four kids of our own. And if you were to ask them their favorite holiday of the year, they would say Thanksgiving,” Jill said. Saxena, in the green sweater and five other international students spent Thanksgiving 2012 with the Landrum family. [View Image]
Saxena, in the green sweater and five other international students spent Thanksgiving 2012 with the Landrum family.

Thanksgiving has become a favorite for Kunal Saxena, a VCU graduate student from India who is pursuing a Ph.D. in the School of Pharmacy. He didn’t know much about the celebration until experiencing his first Thanksgiving four years ago.

Saxena explained that it was Haney, the first American he met after arriving at Richmond International Airport, who explained the VCU Thanksgiving families program and encouraged him to sign up during an orientation session for new international students.

“I thought, why not participate? This could be a good experience. I want to see what this festival is about,” Saxena said. “My first family, the Stovall family, was from Goochland and they came in to pick me up on campus. They had a huge house with a farm and a lot of animals. It was a different experience for me because I come from a big city. It was the first time that I realized there was more to American culture than what I saw in the movies.”

Haney said efforts are made to find the best match for students and families based on mutual areas of interest. Each family is asked to host two students. This year, 87 international students and scholars were hosted by 35 families.

Though the hosts and their guests came from different parts of the world, they quickly realized that although some of the food and traditions are not the same, the idea of gathering as a family is actually fairly similar around the globe.

“They treated me as one of their own. I couldn’t have asked for a better first Thanksgiving,” Saxena said.

Families often invite the same students back year after year. But the Stovall family moved away from the area after sharing Thanksgiving with Saxena. The following year he was paired with a new family in the Doswell area.

“My second and third years were spent with the Landrum family. The kids like to play soccer as do I. We went on long walks,” Saxena said. “They created a home away from home for me. I take Christmas gifts to them. I buy presents and give to them because they treat me like their own family.”

This year, the Landrums celebrated Thanksgiving out of town, providing Saxena the opportunity to share Thanksgiving with the Sheridan family in Richmond’s Southside.

You can learn about the quality of education at any university through guides or searching online. But no guides can truly capture the cultural experiences you gain at VCU.

“They were a young couple with six children, ranging in age from three months to 13 years,” Saxena said. “They hosted me and another student from VCU and shared with us the history of Thanksgiving and the traditions and explained how it has become commercialized in recent years. It gave me a better understanding of the festival.”

Saxena said sharing Thanksgiving with three different families has deepened his understanding of American home life and culture.  

“It has been a great part of my experience in the United States. You can learn about the quality of education at any university through guides or searching online. But no guides can truly capture the cultural experiences you gain at VCU. VCU takes excellent care of its students,” Saxena said. “I am going to miss it when I graduate. It’s a connection that you make and you want to keep it forever.”

 

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Saxena, center, shared Thanksgiving 2010 with the Stovall family. [View Image]
Saxena, center, shared Thanksgiving 2010 with the Stovall family. Saxena with former roommate Morse Faria and a horse during the 2010 celebration with the Stovall family. [View Image]
Saxena with former roommate Morse Faria and a horse during the 2010 celebration with the Stovall family. Enjoying Thanksgiving 2012 with the Landrum family. [View Image]
Enjoying Thanksgiving 2012 with the Landrum family. Musical entertainment with the Landrum family. [View Image]
Musical entertainment with the Landrum family.