For many students, faculty and staff provide a home for the holidays

The holidays are an opportunity to be with family and loved ones. But for many students who cannot make it back during those times, faculty and staff provide them with a home away from home.

The reasons why students are unable to go home on those special times during the year vary. Sometimes, it’s due to athletic activities. Such was the case last November, when the football team qualified the playoffs for the first time in more than a quarter-century. Football players Blake Thompson and Andrzej Labinowicz were ecstatic for the team, even though it meant they couldn’t go home during the Thanksgiving break.

“I’m definitely a ‘mama’s boy,’” a playful Labinowicz says, adding that his family usually gets together with other Polish families for a big Thanksgiving feast in Charlotte, N.C., where they live. “This was the first time I wasn’t going home for Thanksgiving, but I had to be here.”

When associate professor of Spanish Donna Van Bodegraven found out the student-athletes needed a place to spend Thanksgiving, she jumped at the opportunity to host them. The students weren’t completely comfortable at first to be spending such a family-oriented holiday with practical strangers. Soon, however, they found themselves at ease.

“It was a different experience. It was my first holiday away from my family,” says Thompson, adding, “It was much appreciated.”

“It was great; I really enjoyed it,” Labinowicz says. “I was sad I wasn’t home for Thanksgiving, but I don’t regret it.” He adds that not only the food was good but the conversation was great as well.

When home is thousand miles away
For international students, going home for the holidays is not always an option, particularly for Thanksgiving.

Because the holiday is celebrated only in the United States and Canada, the majority of international students traditionally don’t observe the holiday and therefore find themselves on campus during the  break with no place to go. That’s why faculty and staff make a special effort to host these students on Thanksgiving Day.

International students enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner at President Lambert’s house.

Francois Masuka, director of international student and faculty scholar services for the Isabella Cannon International Centre, says he has been impressed with how much attention and interest Elon’s faculty, staff and administrators pay to international students on campus. He points to President Leo M.Lambert, who hosts international students for Thanksgiving dinner at his house every other year. That kind of outreach, he says, goes beyond making the students feel included.

“It’s a more genuine effort,” he says. Faculty and staff who host students during the holidays go the extra mile, he says, not because it’s a school mandate but because they truly want to do it.

Tom Nelson, associate professor of communications, has been hosting international students and faculty for Thanksgiving and Easter since 1987. He said Thanksgiving, in particular, is a good holiday to share with international students because of the potential for cultural exchange.

“They’ve seen Thanksgiving in movies,”Nelson says. “It’s interesting (for them) to see how it plays out (in real life).”

Masuka says that as foreigners, international students miss home every day, but taking part in American traditions, such as Thanksgiving, is an “eye-opening experience” because it allows them to live it and understand its history.

Such was the case for Hiroshi Wada, an exchange student from Kansai Gaigai University in Osaka, Japan, who spent Thanksgiving with associate professor of communicationsr Glenn Scott this year. Besides spending the day “eating, eating, eating and playing” with the children who were at the dinner, Wada says he also learned about the origins of the holiday and how it has changed throughout the years.

International student Hiroshi Wada spent Thanksgiving with professor Glenn Scott’s family and friends.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Wada says. “What I knew about Thanksgiving was just a name. Everything was new for me; I will not forget that day.”

For Scott, the experience was enriching too.

“It made Thanksgiving more meaningful,” Scott says, adding that it was also a good opportunity to get to know Wada, whom Scott had never met before.

Developing personal relationships
Those who have hosted students at their homes say the experience has allowed them to connect with students in a more personal way.

Scott says most of the interactions students have with professors are intellectual because they occurred on campus or as part of class work. That’s why building relationships outside of the classroom is crucial, he adds.

“”My greatest teachers in college were those who showed concern and interest in me as a person,” he says.

Van Bodegraven, who besides hosting students during holidays has also made it a habit to invite her Elon 101 and senior seminar classes to her home for dinner, says it’s important for faculty to have that kind of out-of-the-classroom interaction with students because it gives them a chance to see that faculty “are human beings” who have a life outside of Elon.

For international students, Scott says, having interactions outside the classroom will give them a deeper understanding and appreciation for American culture. He says it’s important for these students to have people reach out to them and provide “some comfort, some good food, some fun and an opportunity to relax” from time to time. “It makes all the difference in the world.”

Masuka says he doesn’t know yet if he will need to find host families for international students during the holiday break. But he’s not worried. Based on the inquiries he’s received so far from faculty and staff, he’s confident it will not be a problem.

“I’m always hopeful,” he says. “Whatever happens, we’ll find the solution.”