As Thanksgiving Day approaches, with the family nest being fairly empty and with two of the three children having flown far away -- at least temporarily --
my thoughts have turned to the foreign students living in Washington. And while, on the one hand, I thought few would be interested, I also realized that there is a special caring that is generated on this holiday that might make others respond to the loneliness of foreign students.
I reflected upon my own days as a student in New York in the early 1960s when I was to spend my first Thanksgiving away from home. The days before the holiday stretched as endlessly as the Hudson River I saw from my window.
I was just a small-town girl from Louisville to whom New York looked like the biggest city in the world. That I was living in International House with students from places as diverse as Burma and Bavaria didn't help. They stared at me blankly as I described our southern celebration, the highlight of which was my mother's special homemade rolls.
I missed home. There were all these people in New York, but no one whom I had known for very long. I thought about just staying in my room and studying all day.
Then, through a mutual friend, I was invited to spend Thanksgiving with a family on the city's East Side. So I rode the subway and walked along the cold streets. Then I was swallowed up in the warmth of this nice, middle-aged couple's home. And I have never forgotten it.
Of course, no longer a student but now a mother, I think of two of my own three children who are foreign students -- one in England and one in France. I have been concerned about what they are going to be doing for Thanksgiving. While they are not in countries where Thanksgiving is celebrated, I know it is a special occasion to them and I hope they will be able to have a special meal with family or friends.
The other day a foreign friend said rather plaintively, "For Thanksgiving, write about the foreign students." It was that request that set the wheels turning. Just as I needed someone to say, "come and have dinner" many years ago, and just as my daughters may have that need this year, would there be many foreign students here in Washington who needed a helping hand?
I decided that a poll of some of the area universities was in order. At Georgetown, where foreign students make up about 9 percent of the population, and at Howard, where 17 percent of the students are foreign, international student advisers remarked that many students viewed Thanksgiving as just another day. But thinking about this, I realized that when foreign students consider a national holiday celebration just a free day, we are missing an opportunity to teach them about our society.
Sometimes a college department or faculty member steps into the gap for students away from home. For the past 12 years, one American University professor, for example, has invited 50 students, half of them foreign, to his annual Orphans Day dinner and has cooked all the food himself. And George Washington's International Student Services tossed a potluck dinner yesterday at which the most popular foods were rice, even sushi, rather than turkey and cranberry sauce.
"It's common for a student to spend many years in the States without ever seeing an American home," said Claudia Godfrey of the Foreign Student Service Council, a 30-year-old organization upon which all area universities rely to arrange holiday dinners for foreign students. "Right now, I have more students who want to visit families than I have host families." (Prospective hosts may reach Godfrey at 232-4979.)
Thanksgiving is a special time because it is a true national celebration -- unlike Christmas, which excludes some religious groups. It is the one holiday that, if it is celebrated with my mother's special rolls, or your mother's sausage stuffing, special lasagna or kielbasa, we're nevertheless all giving thanks on the same day. It is a national day of reflection and family and a time to gather unto ourselves a few of the less fortunate to share our surplus of food and warm glow.