Friends Set a Thanksgiving Table

Published: Nov 19, 2012
Monica Liu ’13, left, and Nathalia Garay ’12 fill their plates with turkey and stuffing at the Nov. 18 event.
Monica Liu ’13, left, and Nathalia Garay ’12 fill their plates with turkey and stuffing at the Nov. 18 event.
Monica Liu ’13 receives her plate of turkey from Trudy Dodson ’92 and Kevin Dodson, volunteers with First Baptist Church of Tampa.
Monica Liu ’13 receives her plate of turkey from Trudy Dodson ’92 and Kevin Dodson, volunteers with First Baptist Church of Tampa.
Monica Liu ’13 spent last Thanksgiving alone and she didn’t want to do that again. So this year her mom flew in from Beijing to celebrate the holiday with her. The two joined the Friends of Internationals on Nov. 18 for a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal.

“All these people are coming together, and I’m able to meet other international students,” said Liu, a master’s of marketing student. “This is better.”

Liu was one of a roomful of students and volunteers from The University of Tampa, University of South Florida and the First Baptist Church of Tampa, which provided the meal. The event was hosted by the Friends of Internationals, a thriving group at USF and a growing group at UT now in its first semester.

“The group was created to help connect internationals to a support network,” said Susan Johnson ’09, MBA ’12, president of the UT group. “We want to make their stay in the U.S. more comfortable.”

From complementary rides to the airport to conversational groups to practice speaking English, the organization offers an invitation to international students to learn about American culture. Sunday’s meal was paired with a talk on the tradition of eating turkey. In addition, interested students will be paired up with host families and invited to their homes to celebrate the actual holiday this week.

“My main hope is that this will connect them to the community by taking them off campus,” Johnson said. “We really want them to connect to families.”

Joseph Pardo, director of Friends of Internationals who oversees both collegiate groups, said that about 85 percent of international students will never enter the home of an American. They will spend two to four years here but never get to experience the hospitality and kindness of an American family.

“The goal here is to challenge American families who are having large family gatherings to include an international student in their celebration. I challenge the American families to include them in the meal, learn about them and their traditions, while at the same time teaching them their traditions, and make them feel like they are part of the family,” said Pardo. “Often this one-day connection turns into a lifelong relationship.”

Connecting with a host family can often mean gaining a surrogate family that international students can turn to when they are feeling lonely or frustrated or just want to be around family. This relationship also helps them with their language skills and gives them a chance to share their culture with their host family and vice versa.

“Being here by yourself is hard,” said Nathalia Garay ’12, of Colombia, who is also the treasurer of the UT Friends of Internationals. “At the end of the day, you go back to your room, and there is no family. That’s hard.”

Garay, who is earning her master’s in finance, got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas and played on her school’s tennis team. It was during a Monday night conversational club that she met a lot of her friends, and she hopes to provide the same kind of opportunity for students at UT.

“Hopefully, they’ll know there are people willing to help them and get involved,” Garay said.

Pardo said he wants students to see Friends of Internationals as a safe place where they can come for help, a lifeline or just to chat, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

“When we look at an international student we should look at their situation, not our fears, and respond with compassion. We should think about how this student is far away from anything familiar, any family and is trying to get through this as a stranger in a strange land,” Pardo said. “We all have a basic need for loving, caring, personal relationships with other people. Friends of Internationals exists to bridge loving, caring families with internationals who have none.”

For more information, email Johnson, Pardo or check out the organization’s Facebook page.

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