Alumni, faculty host international students for Thanksgiving

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On Thanksgiving Day, individuals around the country celebrate the holiday over extensive meals shared with families and friends. At Lehigh, students often leave campus to spend the day with their loved ones.

However, for Lehigh’s 1,144 international students, the American holiday looks a little different.   

For over 20 years, a program has existed, under different names, that allows university faculty and staff members to host international students for a Thanksgiving meal. 

Samba Dieng, the director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, said 85 students and 39 host families participated in the program this year.

“The process is very simple,” Dieng said. “Students and families fill out an application, and families can be very specific with the type of international student they are looking for — for example, if they want a specific language to be spoken. We then decide to match based on feedback.”

Jennifer Mertz, the director of the Office of Financial Aid, volunteered her home to three international students this Thanksgiving. Two graduate students, Jingtao Xu and Sagar Kania, were matched specifically with her family.

Mertz’s aunt hosted another international student, and they came together to enjoy one large meal at Mertz’s home. She said the idea of volunteering her home and family during Thanksgiving was a “no-brainer.”

“We have a big family,” Mertz said. “We have the space, and we always have a lot of food left over. If we can have someone over, eating that leftover food, then that would be great.”

Kania, an international student from India, said he has experienced Thanksgiving twice. Last year, Kania shared a meal at church for the holiday, but this year he wanted the all-American family experience.

Xu, an international student from China, said this Thanksgiving was his first ever.

“I wanted to experience the American culture and Thanksgiving,” Xu said. “It was very nice to see the conversation between the old and the young. In my country, there is little to talk about between the old and the young. At dinner, I heard them talking about football.”

Mary Stanford, a Lehigh alumna who participated in the program, said her family remains connected to the Lehigh community — her husband was the financial aid director at Lehigh for 33 years and her sons are also alumni.

This year, the Stanfords hosted two graduate students, Roberta Stirparo, from Italy, and Cong Zhou, from China.

Stanford said she hosted the two students because she thinks it’s important to give back to the community.

“I lived in Thailand for two years, so I know what it’s like to feel like the odd one out,” Stanford said.

Stirparo said she would participate in the Thanksgiving program again.

“The family was very nice to me,” Stirparo said. “It was my first formal Thanksgiving. I like to talk about anything and everything, and (Stanford), who was in Thailand for two years, (talked with me) about countries and food and movies for a long time.”

Stirparo said she will stay in contact with her host family. They have already scheduled another dinner together this December.

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