Cross Cultures: Share Thanksgiving with an International Student

Cross Cultures: Share Thanksgiving with an International Student

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Meng Zhao and other guests at Thanksgiving dinner

Meng Zhao (left) with assistant professor Courtney Marshall (second from left, back) and others at Marshalls’ home Thanksgiving Day 2012. The English professor invited the students to share the November holiday with her.

Zainab Qari was a 19-year-old undergraduate the first time she sat down to a Thanksgiving dinner. It was 1988. 

For Meng Zhao, it happened in 2012. He was 25 and had recently come to UNH from his home in China, seeking a master’s degree in statistics. 

Like Qari, who works in UNH’s Office of International Students and Scholars, Zhao had been invited into the home of a faculty member for the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“I had heard about Thanksgiving through movies and TV,” the graduate student says. “I thought it would be like that.” 

And it was, to some extent. He watched football, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They played games. And he ate turkey and pumpkin pie—something he had never done before—at the home of Courtney Marshall, assistant professor of English and women’s studies. Marshall stepped up last year when Qari, new to her job as program and outreach coordinator at OISS, brought forward the idea of UNH employees taking in international students for the holiday. 

Twenty-five years ago, Qari was studying art history at Suffolk University when the chair of the department asked her to join her family for Thanksgiving. That kind gesture created a tradition the women and their families still share today. 

 “She came to me and said, ‘Instead of being here alone, we’d love to have you come to our house,’ and I thought, ‘Thanksgiving in an American home, wow,’” Qari says. “The only thing I remember is that I dressed very formally. And the table—it was very traditional, with candles and many silverware pieces.” 

Qari also remembers what it meant to be included. And to not spend the long weekend alone in her dorm. Inclusion is something she strives for on a regular basis with UNH’s 700 international students. 

“My job is to make sure they are not feeling homesick,” Qari says. “I try to make sure they get familiar with campus and the area, and then have things to do on weekends and during breaks.” 

Having something to do isn’t her only goal. In 2012, the OISS launched “Buddies without Borders,” a program that matches international students with American students. 

“We want them to get to know each other,” Qari says. “It’s not just a match to exchange languages, it’s not just a speech partner. We want them to be friends.” 

Last year, 200 students were matched by hobbies and interests. So far this year, 90 American students have volunteered to buddy up with an international student. Zhao had a buddy his first year at UNH, when he lived at Babcock. Now he’s in an apartment in Newmarket with two American students.  

And that’s where he will invite another international student to join him next month for the Thanksgiving holiday. 

Qari will go back to Massachusetts. Until then, she’ll be working to get UNH faculty and staff to host one or more of the hundreds of students who will be far from their home countries during the upcoming holiday. 

OISS director Leila Paje-Manalo fully embraced the idea when Qari presented it last year, and helped to find the 15 employees who shared their holiday traditions with 35 international students. This year, they hope to increase that number. 

“Some of the younger international students might be nervous the first time because they don’t know anything about the holiday, or they’re worried their English might not be good enough but it’s a good experience,” Zhao says. 

If you are interested in hosting a student for Thanksgiving this year, you can sign up here. (Students seeking hosts can sign up here.) For more information, contact Qari at Zainab.qari@unh.edu.