Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

IPO reaches out to local families to host international students for Thanksgiving

(Daily Collegian Archives)
(Daily Collegian Archives)

For many University of Massachusetts students, going home for Thanksgiving means spending time with family and loved ones around a table of home-cooked food. International students, however, don’t always have somewhere to go for the holiday, which is something Richard Yam of the International Programs Office has set out to change.

Yam, an international student adviser and founder of the Thanksgiving Host Program, has invited local families and community members of the Pioneer Valley to host international students for Thanksgiving since 2009. While some families will bring students home for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the holiday, others will volunteer to host students for the entire weekend.

While studying at Springfield College in the 1980s as an international student from Hong Kong, Yam spent Thanksgiving with his then-girlfriend, who is now his wife, at her family’s home. He said this inspired him to start a program that would allow other international students to have the same cultural experience.

“I have that experience knowing that it’s nice to have a taste of American life, because campus life is still different,” he said. “It’s a good intercultural activity, for the host too. All the hosts really enjoy it, so that’s why I promote it.

Yam sends out an e-mail invitation every October to local families, UMass staff and faculty, neighboring church members and other community members asking if they are interested in hosting students, and if they are, how many. He tries to match similar hosts and students together to make the program as beneficial for both groups as possible.

“Sometimes the host asks for specific students from specific countries, so it just so happened that I just placed two students from Costa Rica with a host from Costa Rica. … It’s very nice.”

Yam also mentioned a local Jewish family that has been participating in the program for about four years. Each year they request Middle Eastern students and serve halal meat to accommodate religious preferences.

When the program began in 2009, Yam placed 39 students with 15 local families for the holiday. It has since expanded and is continuing to grow, with 90 students being placed among 23 families in 2014, including 40 students that Katherine Newman, the provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, hosted for dinner.

In testimonials provided by Yam, past students called the program “one of the greatest times in my life”, “totally awesome” and “an excellent opportunity to get to know local people and a bit of local culture.”

Jennifer Ryan, a Westhampton resident who hosts students in the program, connected with Yam two years ago through the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley. She has hosted one student each year – one from Beijing and another from Shanghai.

She had requested to host Chinese students because her nine-year-old daughter K.C. is a student at PVCICS, which aims to teach its students rigorous study integrated with Chinese language and culture. Ryan said K.C. speaks Mandarin fluently.

“Because I’m local, we’ve opened our house from Wednesday to Sunday,” she said. “Typically I’ll pick them up after classes on Wednesday and we’ll stop at a grocery store and pick up a few items that they would prefer to eat, and then on Thursday is my traditional family’s Thanksgiving dinner.”

Ryan said she, her daughter and their international guest will celebrate Thanksgiving with whomever in her family is hosting dinner that year, such as at her sister’s house.

She also tries to get the foreign students involved in American culture during their stay with her, whether by taking them to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in New York City or decorating a Christmas tree at home, both things they have done in the past.

“We try to do something that is sort of Americana. The whole event has allowed my daughter and I to create our own tradition by hosting these students. … I just think it’s a great way to make connections,” she said.

Ryan also said that both of the students she hosted in the past have offered to cook a traditional Chinese dinner for her and her daughter during the Thanksgiving weekend as a way of returning the favor for being welcomed as guests in their home.

Though she is not sure what she and her daughter will be doing with their guests this year, Ryan said K.C. is hoping to visit New York City again.

In her work as an international privacy officer, Ryan often travels around the world for business. She said hosting these two students has provided her with contacts and families in towns in China, and that she is looking forward to a trip to Asia in the spring. She is hoping to bring K.C. with her and to possibly reach out to the students they have hosted if the opportunity arises.

Colby Sears can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colbysears.

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