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When home is halfway across the world: International, food-insecure students make new Thanksgiving traditions

Jok Thon didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving. But this year the international student plans to travel to Indianapolis with his host family to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving feast — turkey, sides and more.

Thon, 32, born in what is now South Sudan and now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he hadn’t heard what most of his international student peers would be doing over the holiday.

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Matt Foy, left, waits on Joby Taylor, right, director of the Shriver Peaceworker Fellows Program at UMBC, who came to Trinacria Foods with doctoral student Jok Thon, center, to stock up on Italian specialty items for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Joby Taylor, Thon’s host and director of the Shriver Peaceworker Fellows Program at UMBC, figures not all would be road tripping like Thon.

Because not all students return home for the Thanksgiving holiday — due to distance or financial constraints — area universities took steps to ensure no one goes without a warm meal who wants one, adapting their dining halls and food pantries for those staying. And since some schools only grant students three days off, many out-of-state students are finding ways to celebrate the holiday in Baltimore.

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The number of students staying at local universities this year will vary, according to surveys the schools conducted.

Stephan Moore, vice president of student affairs at Coppin State University, said 70 students indicated they would probably stay on campus during the holiday. Matthew Moss, assistant vice provost for dining at the Johns Hopkins University, said he’s expecting almost 300 students to stay. Kevin Banks, vice president of student affairs at Morgan State University, said the number of students who stayed in previous years fluctuated between 200 and 300.

Some international students choose not to leave due to the pandemic or travel costs.

Bohua Wan, who’s from Beijing, lives in Tuscany-Canterbury and is a first-year computer science doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University.

“There’s a lot of procedures you need to take — COVID test and a three-day quarantine,” said Wan, 25.

He said he and his girlfriend will go to the mechanical engineering department’s Thanksgiving lunch.

Bill Chen, 24, also lives in Tuscany-Canterbury and is a math doctoral student at Hopkins.

Chen, a native of Nanchang, China, wishes he could return home, but a round-trip flight costs nearly $5,000. He and his friends intend to eat out on Thanksgiving.

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“I know that it’s a very important festival here,” Chen said. “I try to enjoy the vibe.”

Aside from international students, food-insecure students and those reliant on dining hall plans may opt to stay on campus for financial reasons.

Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the lack of consistent access to sufficient food for a healthy, active lifestyle. According to a 2016 Hunger on Campus report, 20% of students at four-year schools experienced food insecurity.

Inflation and the rising cost of living may lead to an increase in those numbers.

Joby Taylor, left, director of the Shriver Peaceworker Fellows Program at UMBC, leaves Trinacria Foods loaded with Italian specialty items for the Thanksgiving holiday with his wife Beth, right, and Jok Thon, second from right, a doctoral student from South Sudan who has been staying with them since coming to UMBC in  August. Trinacria employee Matt Foy, behind them, helps carry their purchases to their car.

Malissa Rivera, coordinator of service-learning and student engagement with the University of Baltimore’s Rosenberg Center for Student Engagement and Inclusion, said the campus pantry has seen its numbers double over the past year. More than 60 people have used the pantry this semester, Rivera said, which is open to students, alumni, staff and faculty and stocks items such as frozen foods, canned goods and non-food essentials like diapers.

“I’m feeling it myself, and I’m not a food-insecure person, to see how much the prices have gone up everywhere,” Rivera said. “People who were experiencing food insecurity are probably feeling it more now.”

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Maryland universities say they have options for food-insecure students when campuses close for the holiday.

“We want to partner with students who do not have a place to go or want to stay and use our resources,” Moore said.

Moore said the university, which closed Tuesday, has a partnership with Thompson Hospitality, a minority-owned food service provider, to feed students. Coppin State junior Jawaad Williams, 20, who serves on the Student Activities Programming Board, said he and the organization help make students aware of resources they can use or volunteer their time to.

“Whether it’s food drives or soup kitchens, we connect students with that info,” Williams said.

University of Baltimore’s honor society Omicron Delta Kappa is running a supply drive for the campus pantry, Rivera said. The drive, which started Nov. 14 and goes until the end of the year, is focused on items such as toiletries, baby wipes and diapers as well as cooking essentials like pots and pans.

The pantry was open Monday for community members to grab last-minute essentials for the upcoming holiday, Rivera said.

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Moss said Hopkins dining will have at least one dining hall open throughout the holiday, as has been tradition the past few years.

For the December holiday break, Moss said Hopkins dining will stay open for the first time.

Banks said Morgan State dining services would continue through Thanksgiving break, albeit with a changed schedule. Additionally, the university’s Food Resource Center opened last week for students to grab produce and other items. Beyond food, Banks noted the counseling center also will be open during the break.

“During the last two years, [students] lost some significant loved ones,” Banks said. “And so we use a holistic approach to making sure students are fed physically, but then we want to make sure that we’re feeding them emotionally.”

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At UMBC, spokesperson Dinah Winnick said students who stay during the Thanksgiving break can receive a package of food they can make in campus kitchens.

UMBC’s international student Thon said he doesn’t have plans to cook while he’s in Indianapolis but is happy to help in the kitchen.

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Thon’s host, Taylor, said he hasn’t spent Thanksgiving with all of his family together in about 20 years. There will be four generations of Taylor’s family present at the gathering.

“Jok gave us the good impetus to do that,” Taylor said.

Jok Thon, right, a doctoral student at UMBC from South Sudan, shops at Trinacria Foods with Joby Taylor, director of the Shriver Peaceworker Fellows Program at UMBC, for Italian specialty items for Thanksgiving.

Thon said he’s excited to make the 11-hour drive and celebrate with Taylor’s family, especially since Thanksgiving is not part of the culture in South Sudan.

“This spirit should continue,” Thon said. “Such kind of cultures help us to reflect on people that need our support and really help us to boost our community that we need to build, which is the most important thing.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Maya Lora contributed to this article.


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