The University of Iowa

Locals share Thanksgiving with international students

November 18th, 2011

By Melissa Dawkins, The Daily Iowan

Next week marks University of Iowa senior Linshan Li’s fourth Thanksgiving celebration.

The Friends of International Students board members say more families are needed to help UI international students— such as Li — experience the American holidays.

And that’s where people such as Maria Ortega Kummer come in.

“I really hated to think that there were any students in Iowa City with no place to go on Thanksgiving,” said the Friends of International Students board member and Thanksgiving matching organizer. “Why don’t we at least try to link them for dinner?”

For the past 40 years, the Iowa City nonprofit group has matched community members with UI international students.

But sometimes students who do not sign up for the organization’s partnering program at their freshman orientation need Thanksgiving Day plans.

But with requests still flying in, Kummer said in an email, she has more than 30 international students who would like to be matched for Thanksgiving. Ten hosts are currently on the roster, including her own family.

Kummer said she and her husband have hosted international students for the past 15 years, before she began the Thanksgiving matching program several years ago. She said her family typically hosts between two and eight students each year.

“It’s more about a glimpse into the culture and the home in the United States,” Kummer said. “… We just try to have a good evening of food and conversation. Sometimes, we’ll take a walk if it’s nice. I’m usually pretty busy in the kitchen.”

Scott King, the director of International Students and Scholars, noted some aspects of Thanksgiving may be unfamiliar to foreign students.

“Every culture has feast days. This is a little unusual because it’s not directly religion-based,” he said. “We do it differently from other cultures and countries.”

Friends of International Students board member Deborah Thornton volunteered to be a host four years ago and was paired with Li, who continues to regularly see the Thortons. Li has spent the past three Thanksgivings with the family.

“I call her my American mom,” Li said. “I’m her adopted girl.”

Thornton said the holiday is a chance to bring cultures together.

“It’s very interesting to talk to people about the cultural differences,” she said.

Kummer said being mindful of differences is an integral part of hosting international students.

“I think any challenges are always outweighed by the benefits,” she said.

Thornton said she hopes more community members will sign up.

“We do need lots of people to host the students to help them feel more comfortable here in the U.S.,” she said. “We would love to have more people volunteer.”

The Thanksgiving holiday reminds Li of the Mid-Autumn Festival in China.

“At that time, if you don’t have someone to accompany you, it kind of feels lonely.” Li said. “To have an American family around you makes you feel much better. And I really like the food."