Nov. 15, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 5

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    International students sit down to a ‘Norman Rockwell’ Thanksgiving

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Every year since 1956, families across Illinois have invited international students from the University to experience a small-town, all-American, Norman Rockwell-style Thanksgiving holiday. This year, more than 200 students will travel to seven nearby communities: Geneseo, Morrison, Paris, Prophetstown, Rockford, Sterling-Rock Falls and Watseka.

    The Thanksgiving Fellowship Program, run by International House, is not just for University students; international students from over 20 other Chicago-area colleges and universities also participate. Spouses, children, even parents and siblings of students are welcome, and all stay together with the same host family.

    The foreign students leave Chicago on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and return the Sunday afterward. “The program has been recognized nationally by the National Council of International Visitors and others because the students stay with families for the entire weekend,” said Denise Jorgens, International House Program Director. “Over that length of time, they really become part of the family. In fact, many students return throughout the year and develop a strong relationship with their host family.”

    Shuhong Lin, a Singaporean graduate student in psychology, first participated in the program in 1997. She stayed with Sue and Douglas Voltz and their two children, Sara Lyn and Kyle, in Geneseo, Ill., a farming community about three hours west of Chicago. “I got to operate a corn harvester––I harvested five or six rows of corn,” she said. “We also went to a Christmas tree farm, where I helped cut down a tree and then helped decorate it. One evening we went to Peoria and saw the Thanksgiving parade. It was really fun.”

    Of course, Lin also got to eat a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. “It was my first year in the United States, and though I’d eaten American food, I hadn’t eaten a traditional Midwestern Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “There was a big turkey with stuffing––my appetite is growing just thinking about it.” Lin had such an enjoyable time that the following year, as well as this year, she helped to organize the event.

    The Thanksgiving Fellowship Program has been running for so long that some of the original host families’ children––even their grandchildren––have become host families. “My parents have participated in the program since it began in 1956, when I was a junior in high school,” said Janet Goodell of Prophetstown, population 2,000. “Then my husband and I started in 1976, when my son was 8 and my daughter was 10. And my daughter and her family are in their fourth year of participation now. So we have three generations.”

    A Thanksgiving weekend at the Goodells always includes a tour of their farm, where they grow corn, seed corn and soybeans and fatten beef cattle. Other typical events include a visit to the Mississippi River, a tour of the John Deere headquarters in Moline, Ill., and a visit to Heritage Canyon, a former rock quarry with several restored historical buildings.

    On several occasions, Goodell has hosted vegetarian guests, such as a Jain Hindu student from India. “I always make lots of vegetables,” she said. “I make marinated carrots; a vegetarian stew that’s all vegetables with a tomato base, no beef broth; green beans; squash; rice––they like curried rice.”

    From the very beginning, the program was designed to give foreign students a broader picture of American culture. As one student wrote in 1958, “America to the European too often means simply Elvis Presley, glossy cars and high buildings there is nothing wrong with Mr. Presley or skyscrapers, but America is not just that.”

    Jorgens said, “For students who live in the city, it’s a chance to get out of Chicago and experience other aspects of life in the Midwest. And for the host families, it’s their window to the world. They get an insight into countries that they may never have the chance to visit themselves.”

    Goodell added, “It’s so interesting to learn about different cultures and customs, and be around people from other countries. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. I write to former students in Japan, Morocco, Spain, Argentina and Germany. E-mail makes it real easy.”