Employees Offer International Community a Taste of Thanksgiving

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If you are a member of Tech’s international community, you may have never celebrated Thanksgiving — but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t love an opportunity to enjoy some mouth-watering pumpkin pie and turkey with all of the trimmings. 

Thanks to a group of Tech employees, international faculty, staff and students have an opportunity to experience the American holiday.     

For example, if you’re at Julie Swann’s house, you’ll probably be passing the sweet potatoes to a student or colleague who hails from as far away as Thailand or Turkey. 

“We were very happy to have a warm home to go to and friends to meet,” said Olga Shemyakina, assistant professor in the School of Economics, who attended Swann’s 2008 gathering. “It can get very lonely in the United States during Thanksgiving and Christmas if you don’t have family and friends around.” 

Since 2002 Swann, an associate professor in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), has hosted students and faculty members from Iceland, China, Kazakhstan and several other countries — including the United States — at her Thanksgiving celebrations. 

“My PhD advisor would invite students to his house for Thanksgiving, and I thought this was a great tradition to adopt,” she said. “I usually email invitations to students first and then add a few faculty members if there is space.” 

Planning the meal tends to be more of a challenge than trying to squeeze in as many as 16 people around two tables, since some guests are vegetarians or don’t eat particular foods. 

“Just try to find a stuffing or dressing that doesn’t have garlic or onions in it,” Swann said. 

She usually kicks off each meal with an icebreaker, since not everyone knows one another. For example, she’ll ask people to share their name and the story behind it. 

“It was the first Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever attended,” said Santanu Dey, an assistant professor in ISyE who attended Swann’s 2010 dinner. “I particularly enjoyed the conversations with Julie, her family and the students — oh, and the food is awesome.” 

“I enjoyed the diversity at Julie’s gathering,” said Pinar Keskinocak, ISyE professor and co-director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics and associate director of Research, Health Systems Institute, who attended one of Swann’s gatherings in 2002. “It was great to be with people from various parts of the world who were sharing their culture, experiences and food from their countries.” 

Then there are employees such as Kirk Bowman, who welcomed about 60 students annually to a Thanksgiving dinner at Tech’s International House during his time as faculty director.  I-House is home to a living and learning community that includes both American and international students. 

“It all started in 2005, because the American students wanted to share this experience with all of the international students,” said Bowman, who is director of undergraduate programs in the School of International Affairs. “About half of the attendees were experiencing their first Thanksgiving meal — and they were always stunned by the amount of food and how many things could be made with Coca Cola.” 

These dinners usually last about two hours and feature turkey with all of the trimmings, green bean casserole and anything with sweet potatoes — all dishes cooked by the residents.Bowman acknowledged that it can be a challenge to find enough oven space for so many cooks. 

“People will cook in shifts, and we will also use stovetops or borrow ovens from other buildings,” Bowman added. 

Austin Lawry, an international affairs and modern languages student who has lived in I-House for three years, is always amazed by the amount of food at the dinners. 

“Pictures can’t even show the massive amount of food spread out — we usually have five tables in order to accommodate all of the food that I-Housers provide,” Lawry said. “This is one of my favorite I-House events, since it gives the international students who have never experienced Thanksgiving an opportunity to be a part of a cherished American tradition.” 

This year’s I-House meal is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 21 (the time of the meal is still undecided). 

“Faculty and staff are welcome to volunteer to help with the meal — the more the merrier!” said Kelly Comfort, current I-House director and assistant professor of modern languages. “Our international students want the most authentic experience possible, so if anyone has a favorite dish or tradition to share, please get involved in the event.”  

To learn more, contact Comfort



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