Years ago, when Thomas LeBlanc was a professor, he had students with whom he was close. And he knew they couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving. So LeBlanc invited them to his home.
“And my wife was always happy to add another place setting," LeBlanc said. "After a while, it would be three, four, five, six.”
As LeBlanc’s career progressed, so did this holiday tradition. Eventually, LeBlanc became president of George Washington University in the District. He had a house on campus now. And he had the same general philosophy about Thanksgiving.
“I prefer not to have students sitting home alone on this holiday, at which we give thanks for everything that’s good in our life, if I could help it,” he said.
That is how more than 100 students ended up at the LeBlancs’ campus residence for Thanksgiving last year. They made s’mores around outdoor fire pits. There was football on TV.
The LeBlancs make a particular effort to open their door to freshmen and to international students far from their own families. Really, if a college student was caught on campus, they could swing by.
“We issue kind of a broad invitation, we take RSVPs,” he said. “But frankly, if a student shows up and hasn’t RSVPed, I don’t think we’re turning him or her away.”
All of this is to say: Moms and dads with kids in D.C.-area colleges, don’t worry. If your children can’t make it home this holiday, that does not mean they won’t have a seat at a table. There is turkey here in Washington, too. More important: There are mashed potatoes. And pie. And maybe some sort of cranberry situation, if that’s your scene.
Colleges and universities are about, among other things, the surrogate families that students create. And those communities can be found when many students leave campus, too. Just look at LeBlanc’s house, where there are again plans for food and football this week.
“Just because I think you can’t really appreciate the feeling of [the] Thanksgiving holiday without also having the football game on,” he said.
At American University, the school’s Pride Alumni Alliance plans to host its third annual Thanksgiving celebration on campus. There will be containers at that Thursday meal, Belinda Peter said, so students can leave with leftovers.
“We call it an inclusive celebration at AU, and I think that’s what it truly is,” said Peter, assistant director of multicultural and affinity engagement at American. “Because it’s really a sense of home. And however you would define home."
A member of AU’s Board of Trustees has also extended an invitation to a community Thanksgiving dinner in Northern Virginia.
“We want people to feel there is always a seat at this table," trustee Pamela Deese said. "There’s always room for one more. That’s an important message.”
Howard University has planned a “Thanksgiving Bash” for Thursday with a DJ, a spades tournament and board games. (Also, a dinner, in case that was unclear.) And Georgetown University students could feast on Thanksgiving Eve, with a Wednesday dinner planned for the campus.
Hoyas can thank university President John DeGioia’s wife for that. She grew up in Las Vegas and attended Georgetown. She pointed out that she was never able to go home for Thanksgiving, DeGioia said, and thought about doing something for students in the same spot.
“So we said, all right, let’s try to throw a dinner on Wednesday evening; we’ll open it up to anybody who wants to come, and let’s see what happens,” DeGioia said. “Here we are, 18 years later, and it’s certainly part of our Thanksgiving. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if we weren’t convening this.”
The dinner attracts a lot of international students, DeGioia said. He was recently in Asia, where he visited with Georgetown alumni in Beijing and Seoul. At both receptions, he said, he was approached by graduates who told him it was the first time they’d been together since Thanksgiving, years ago.
“It means a lot to me, that this is something that our alums remember, years later,” he said.
DeGioia attended Georgetown, too, and worked in the residence halls as an undergraduate. His mother and father were living in California, and he couldn’t get home. So this scenario — students stuck on their college campuses for a holiday — was something he understood.
“Once you’ve done it a few times, the practice, the memory, the ways in which you connect with one another and also with this place around this time of year is just something that means a great deal to me,” he said of the dinner.
The Wednesday night menu at Georgetown included maple-brined turkey, candied yams and green bean casserole, a university spokesman said in an email. Also listed: hot spiced apple cider and pumpkin pie, crispy Brussels sprouts and mac and cheese.
Technically, two dinners were scheduled for Wednesday — one early in the evening, another a few hours later — but no one would stop a student from staying through both, which is, quite obviously, the move here.
“Even some students who will be going home but are leaving, perhaps on Thursday morning, they may swing by, too,” DeGioia said. “Which is just fine. It’s kind of open for everybody."
The Rev. Jude DeAngelo, university chaplain and director of campus ministry at Catholic University of America, hosts Thanksgiving at the school, a long-standing tradition. They do not have football on at Catholic, DeAngelo said, and he tells students to not use their cellphones at the table.
“A number of our students who live far away go to other students' homes, but then there’s some that don’t," he said. "So it’s really nice that we have something and people can share the tradition.”
LeBlanc, George Washington’s president, said that a few years ago, when he was still working at the University of Miami, he invited Chinese students, to help them better understand their experience in America. One of those students brought a steamer and made a special dish for the dinner.
“Which I thought was really sweet of him,” he said. “And then he bought my wife a steamer, so she could make that dish.”
Someone snapped a picture that day to remember the moment, LeBlanc said. That student is now at George Washington University, too. He came to the LeBlanc home for Thanksgiving last year, and brought with him a framed copy of the photo.
“It just showed me that you can have more impact than you think you’re having,” LeBlanc said, “just by serving students a meal.”