International students carry flags and walk during the annual March Through the Arches ceremony on September 2, 2014.

'Pass the Turkey' Fosters International Relationships at St. Thomas

All the traditional pieces were in place at St. Thomas associate theology professor Paul Wojda’s house for a typical Thanksgiving in Minnesota.

The turkey was cut. The gravy made its way onto plates stacked with mashed potatoes. Grumbling was heard about how cold it was outside these days. The conversation turned to Indian wedding customs and, later, to the political and social situations in Europe.

OK, so maybe not all the traditional pieces were in place. That’s because Wojda and his family took part in the St. Thomas Thanksgiving Dinner Host Program, an International Student Services tradition since 2011 that pairs students and faculty from around the world with local St. Thomas community members.

“We’re all so busy running around trying to complete our checklist and goals, so you have to be intentional about pursuing these kinds of dialogues,” Wojda said. “We have to create the space for these kinds of things to happen. I was very grateful (ISS assistant director) Samba (Dieng) took the initiative and saw the need to do this.”

Dieng saw that need when he arrived in 2010. At that point international students were invited to a Thanksgiving dinner on campus the week before, but didn't have any offerings for the actual holiday. That didn’t quite take advantage of the great opportunity such a holiday presents, Dieng thought.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we think about ways to involve students with different families? What would be a nicer way to integrate them? It’s a very important holiday, family-oriented, historical,’” Dieng said. “Why not have these relationships be formed over dinner at someone’s home?”

The response was overwhelming, with about 50 students and 50 host families connecting in that first year. Participation has declined some since then (14 students and faculty connected with 13 host families this year), but the numbers aren’t as important to ISS as providing an option, Dieng said.

“If a student has other plans, great, but what we don’t want is someone stuck in their room without a choice,” he added. “We want to focus on the importance of exchange. We tend to forget with international students that we shouldn’t view them as just recipients of things; they are an important part of our campus and we get to learn from each other. This kind of thing helps get them integrated so they’re part of the community.”

That mentality is not lost on Ling Zhou, a visiting faculty member from the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing who had Thanksgiving dinner with Marcella de la Torre of the Opus College of Business.

“It’s a real cultural experience for everyone,” said Zhou, who has made a point of seeking out relationships with community members during her year here. “It’s a connection between these local people and me. I’m trying to give them a picture of what my life is like while I’m seeing what their life is like.”

“ISS is playing a very important role in connecting the international people here,” Zhou added. “Everything in my daily life, I can feel I am cared for. I care how much I am cared about. I know that UST does care, and that’s what I really appreciate.”

Stories supporting that feeling have poured in to Dieng since the start of the Thanksgiving program. One such anecdote involved a Saudi Arabian student who was surprised to find not only herself invited to dinner, but her husband and two kids as well.

“She was thrilled they all got to be a part of it. She told me, ‘I had heard of Minnesota nice before, but didn’t understand it until this,’” Dieng said. “She felt these people care about her.”

Back at the Wojdas', that mentality represented a large part of the globe on Thanksgiving: On top of the two St. Thomas graduate students from Delhi, India, at dinner, friends from Spain, Italy and Cuba also were invited to take part in a truly international gathering.

“We need to create, wherever possible, the places for dialogue between all these different people to take place. It has to happen outside the classroom, too, both on and off campus,” Wojda said. “This program fits nicely into that overall vision of an international campus. The mark of an international campus is not that you happen to have people from all over the globe, but that they’re talking to each other and learning from each other.”

Thanksgiving isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so the holiday of “pass the turkey,” in any language, will continue to be a great occasion for such talking and learning to take place at St. Thomas.