By Anne Hartman Raether
Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States are bursting with traditions—from classic meals of turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing to parades, family gatherings, and Black Friday shopping. International House’s Thanksgiving Homestay Program gives international students the chance to take part in the festivities.
For families in six Illinois communities—Geneseo, Morrison, Paris, Prophetstown, Rockford, and Sterling-Rock Falls—hosting international students has become a beloved part of their Thanksgiving traditions. I-House’s program matches international scholars like Rajab Ghazzaoui, a master’s student in the Harris School, with families in these communities for a four-day Thanksgiving holiday.
“I’ve seen American Thanksgiving in movies and TV shows, but I wanted to experience what it was really like,” said Ghazzaoui, who’s from Lebanon. “It was also nice to see Illinois outside of Chicago, and learn about smaller towns and the people there.”
Ghazzaoui stayed with a couple in Morrison for the weekend, who joined other family members for Thanksgiving dinner followed by a game night. He also toured the family’s sprawling farm, went to Catholic mass in the community, and enjoyed a trip to a local pizza joint and bowling alley.
The Thanksgiving Homestay Program was started in 1956 by Trudy Trogdon of Paris, Illinois, who was inspired to form stronger ties with and a better understanding of international students’ experiences while attending school in the U.S. The program has since grown to include additional communities. I-House also welcomes international students from other nearby institutions—such as Loyola University and University of Illinois at Chicago—to participate in the program. This year, host families invited 92 students and their families to their homes to join their Thanksgiving traditions.
Sylvie Zhuang, a master’s student in the School of Social Service Administration from Beijing, China, left Hyde Park for a farmhouse near Paris to stay with the Taylor family and join a bustling Thanksgiving dinner with more than 30 family members and friends in attendance.
“I really felt like a part of their family,” Zhuang said. “Their relationship is very cool. It was lovely to see them just talk and laugh together and prepare delicious food. That’s the part I enjoyed the most.”
While the Taylor family shared some of their favorite pastimes with Zhuang—like antique shopping and pottery painting—Zhuang and other international students prepared dumplings for the family to introduce them to traditional Chinese foods.
Hosts often stay involved with the program for many years—some have participated for up to 40 years, and their children have continued the tradition of opening their homes to international students. Many hosts continue to stay in touch with students long after the program has ended, said Sujata Singh, program coordinator for GRAD Life at I-House.
Steve Caudillo has hosted students since 1997 and is now the state coordinator for the Thanksgiving Homestay Program. Caudillo’s own experience abroad inspired him to take part in the program.
“I did a summer program in 1979 with my high school in Madrid, Spain,” he said. “I always told myself that when I get older, I want to do the same for others that was done for me.”
Caudillo’s community—Sterling Rock-Falls—has embraced traditions surrounding the Homestay Program, which are now a staple in their extended Thanksgiving weekend. The community hosts a game night at a local church on the Friday after Thanksgiving and an international buffet dinner on Saturday, where students offer dishes from their countries and mingle with other families. The night is capped off with a candle-lighting ceremony, where participants gather to speak about unity, peace, and sustaining friendships.
I-House also offers activities for those who stay on campus in December—students gather to watch holiday classics like Love Actually and Elf, or visit the Lincoln Park Zoo Lights and Navy Pier’s Winter WonderFest.
The Thanksgiving Homestay Program and other holiday activities, which are open to undergraduate and graduate students, are part of I-House’s Graduate Commons Programs. The Graduate Commons Programs offer unique experiences for UChicago graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and sponsor programs to help ensure the diversity of the graduate community connected to I-House. The opportunities also give international students the chance to gain a better understanding of American life and form treasured friendships while living far from home. For local residents, the programs help to deepen their understanding of other traditions and cultures.
“We’ve had a variety of students from all over the world participate,” Caudillo said. “One of the most exciting things for the host families is to experience another country in their home. It’s so interesting to see how barriers are broken.”