Staffers share Thanksgiving with international visitors

Nov. 15, 2011

by Susannah Brooks

Most students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison spend the last Thursday in November with family or friends: bundling up to brave colder weather; gathering around various combinations of turkey, vegetables and pie.

But American holidays such as Thanksgiving can magnify cultural gaps. Traditions may seem unfamiliar to international students who haven't grown up learning about Pilgrims; talk of family gatherings may seem bittersweet to those for whom "going home" means a 16-hour flight.

For 52 years, volunteers from Madison Friends of International Students (MFIS) has worked to close these gaps by befriending and assisting UW-Madison international students, scholars and their families. With services such as home stays, English classes, furniture and clothing loans — crucial for those unaccustomed to icy Wisconsin winters — MFIS services help international visitors get comfortable here in Madison, however long they might stay.

"When we evaluate our services, our students indicate that their top concern when they arrive in the United States is making friends — specifically, American friends," says Tina Hatch, student services coordinator in International Student Services (ISS) and a past president of MFIS. "For some of our students, participating in MFIS is one of the highlights of their time here, because it lets them get off campus and interact with local people."

Each year, MFIS matches international students with Madison-area families for Thanksgiving dinner. Many UW-Madison staffers take part, opening their homes as they have opened doors on campus. To some, extra spots at the table have become part of their own holiday tradition.

For more than 20 years, Tad Pinkerton and his spouse Hannah have hosted international students. When students arrive on campus too early to get into the dorms, the Pinkertons offer a place to stay and a warm welcome to American life. Any student who has stayed with the family gets an automatic invitation for Thanksgiving dinner.

"It's difficult for these kids when all of their American fellow students leave at Thanksgiving," says Pinkerton, emeritus professor of computer sciences and deputy director of DoIT. "Suddenly, they're all alone, and we didn't like to see that."

Growing up in a family of academic world travelers, Hannah Pinkerton had more international exposure than most of her peers, even spending a year in Baghdad during high school. The couple's love for travel has also fueled their cultural curiosity.

"It's just fun to get together with people from around the globe," says Pinkerton. "It's interesting, too, to see the students interact — someone from China with someone from France."

These holiday invitations have turned into lasting relationships, particularly with graduate students who expect to be in town for several years. This year, the Pinkertons expect two or three newer Malaysian students, but they will also welcome back a Chinese student and a woman from India who first visited three years ago.

The gathering also includes other couples whose children have moved elsewhere, as well as one of the Pinkertons' grown daughters.

"Our children, when they were growing up, were not so sure of this," says Pinkerton. "They thought of a holiday as a family time, and here we were, bringing in these foreigners. But it was like taking your kids overseas; you get to expose them to things they wouldn't have experienced."

As an advocate for students and a host herself, Tina Hatch appreciates both sides of the equation.

"This provides a rich opportunity for students to experience culture in a more intimate way than they might by just attending classes," she says. "For families, it's a great — and low-cost — initial exposure to other cultures; it can spark kids' interest in learning a language or traveling overseas."

As Hatch prepares to share another meal, she says that the enthusiasm and warmth from her guests has gone well beyond her expectations.

"To me, it's the human connection," says Hatch. "We were able to share our family and our culture; we felt a genuine link to someone different from ourselves. It makes the holidays more enjoyable."

Volunteers interested in sharing Thanksgiving meals with an international student or family can contact the MFIS office at info@mfismadison.org, ideally by Nov. 15.

Students or families interested in sharing a meal with American families can also email info@mfismadison.org with questions. A signup form is available here.