On Wednesday, 150 foreign students and their families boarded buses at the University of Chicago’s International House and headed off to experience the classic American holiday in classic style.
Through the Thanksgiving Homestay Program run by International House in Hyde Park, they are spending the long holiday weekend in the homes of host families in rural Illinois.
And if the same magic from previous years takes hold, they will feel not like foreigners, but friends.
Before Claudia Macaluso, an Italian doctoral student in economics at the U. of C., stayed with a Tuscola farm family last Thanksgiving, “I’m thinking America is another world, almost like going to Mars.”
“But it’s really not. People are the same. Family values are the same.”
The International House, a residence and program center for foreign students from throughout the Chicago area, has been providing an opportunity for foreign students to experience an American tradition for 56 years, said Denise Jorgens, director of programs and external relations at International House.
Thanksgiving, she said, is the ideal occasion for a foreign exchange.
“It’s not a religious holiday; it’s just a typical American holiday with really wonderful traditions,” she said. “And the fact that it’s a time when families gather together to celebrate together just makes for the perfect setting to welcome an international visitor into their home.”
Record numbers of students have applied in recent years, in part because there are more foreign students in the country. But the program is tremendously popular with second- and third-generation students and hosts, drawn by enthusiastic reports of parents and grandparents. Students come from a number of Chicago-area schools, but the University of Chicago sends the largest contingent.
This year, a number of students had to be turned away because there were fewer spots available. The program’s costs are borne by host families and communities, many of whom were hit especially hard by the troubled economy, Jorgens said.
Many of the students who secured a spot are eager to see the Midwest beyond Chicago. Many ask to visit farms. And “everyone wants to see the Mississippi River,” Jorgens said.
Anna Bischof, from Germany, had no special requests.
“We want to do what an American family traditionally does on Thanksgiving,” said Bischof, who is going with her husband, a postdoctoral fellow at the Booth School of Business, and their two young children.
Mostly they look forward to meeting people from this country and seeing how they live.
“I want to know American people,” said Spring Li, a visiting scholar in sociology at the University of Chicago from Beijing. “I’m very curious about American home life.”