Southeast Missouri State University student publication

“Home” for the holidays: how international students celebrate at SEMO

Thursday, November 24, 2022
International students, church-goers and SEMO community members attend the Apostolic Promise Church's annual Thanksgiving meal. Apostolic Promise will also be serving a Christmas meal at 4:30 p.m. on Christmas day.
Photo submitted by Apostolic Promise Church

For many international students, being in a different country from their family during the holiday season can be lonely and challenging.

Tanya Maswera, a sophomore nursing major from Zimbabwe, describes herself as a very family and relationship-oriented person. She said not being able to go home as frequently as her classmates and struggling to find a time to call her family with the time difference has not been easy.

“I did meet people who really welcomed me as if I was their family,” Maswera said. “I do miss my family, but I’ve actually made some sort of family here.”

One part of Maswera’s experience with creating a new family included visiting family friends for Thanksgiving in Dallas, Texas last year. It was Maswera’s first time experiencing a Thanksgiving meal, and she described it as a feast, with turkey, cornbread, mac and cheese, green beans and chicken.

“When I tell you I’m obsessed with good cornbread: I’m obsessed with good, good cornbread,” Maswera said.

Maswera said her Thanksgiving experience helped her realize why the holiday is so significant in America.

“I always just heard about it on TV, and I just didn’t really understand why this is very important,” Maswera said. “It was a very wholesome moment, now I understand that’s a big holiday most Americans look forward to and take seriously.”

Brooke DeArman, the Assistant Director of International Student Services, said it’s especially important for international students to seek community during the holidays.

“It just pulls people out of sadness and out of that rut of feeling lonely. Even though Thanksgiving may not be a holiday that’s being celebrated back home, it’s still reminding them of the holidays they are missing,” DeArman said.

DeArman says several local organizations, like the Apostolic Promise Church and St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church hold annual Thanksgiving celebrations which many international students attend. Additionally, many students stay with host families or friends for Thanksgiving and Christmas break. Many even take road trips, especially during Christmas break.

“I’ll talk to so many international students who have been to way more places in the US than domestic students or even my colleagues or I have been,” DeArman said.

DeArman said she loves seeing the different unique ways international students celebrate the holiday season.

“They go all out,” DeArman said. “They get together with their friends at their apartments to make sure that they are celebrating their holidays.”

Moe Toyoda is a junior psychology and applied mathematics major from Japan. Her birthday falls on Thanksgiving break, and for the past two years she has spent it with friends and other international students. Last year, Toyoda’s Japanese friends threw her a surprise party and cooked Japanese food.

Although she has American friends, Toyoda said spending time with other Japanese students is nice, because she can share her culture in a special way.

“I’m willing to explain [my culture], but obviously I’m more comfortable with the people who know my culture and eat the meals that I like,” Toyoda said. “I guess it’s the same thing for everyone; being in the communities that you like is really important, and doesn’t make you so lonely.”

Suhag Patel, a master’s student studying computer education and higher education administration from India, also said he finds small comforts in spending time with people and eating food that reminds him of home.

Patel said during Christmas break, it’s common for him and his friends to celebrate with other Indians in St. Louis on the weekends.

When Patel and his friends missed food from home, they would go to St. Louis or Carbondale to get authentic Indian street food.

“We tried to cook it here, but the taste is a lot different than what our mom used to make,” Patel said.

Patel usually celebrates Thanksgiving with friends who throw a big party with a huge meal. He said he is a vegan, but always finds something to eat. He has traveled to New York, California and Chicago over multiple Christmas breaks, and hopes to go to New York again this year, if it’s not too cold.

Zahra Abdolahzadeh, a public administration master’s student from Iran said in Iran, the details of celebrations are more important. But in America, people tend to focus more on the holiday spirit and celebrating in any way they can, even in small ways.

“Here, people are looking for a reason to be happy, and I see that they try to — even with no equipment, or not a big tree — try to enjoy this holiday,” Abdolahzadeh said.

Abdolahzadeh likes this aspect of celebrating, no matter the size of the celebration.

“Anything that is about happiness and gathering is always interesting for me, so it doesn’t matter which part of the world it is. It’s beautiful that we celebrate something, we’re happy for and find a reason to be happy,” Abdolahzadeh said.