STARKVILLE — A city couple who recall their lonely holidays as international students now open their home to make sure international students have a holiday home.
Armando and Ruth de la Cruz remember how they felt as international students. The holidays were filled with boredom, inconvenience and isolation.
They knew they stood out. A simple conversation with a native made them stand out even more. Being different, though, was expected after they left their native Philippines for the United States in the 1960s.
Twenty-seven years ago, the de la Cruz family started inviting international students from Mississippi State University to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. Cruz has been a biology professor at MSU since 1970,
Mostly European students attended the first few gatherings, which averaged between 50 to 75 people. In just a few years, the international Thanksgiving dinner grew to more than 300 people and shifted to First United Methodist Church, where the annual tradition continues today.
“The university used to close, so students didn’t know where to go and didn’t have a place to eat,” Armando said. “They had a hard time, and I thought this would be a good way to get the students interacting with the community.”
The Thanksgiving dinner is traditional turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes. And since most foreign students don’t have vehicles, First United and the World Neighbors Organization — co-sponsors of the dinner — provide transportation to and from the church.
The Thanksgiving dinner efforts go beyond the de la Cruz family, as Starkville residents of all races annually prepare and serve meals each year. The dinner also includes live music from church members. The dinner used to include one-act plays about Thanksgiving to highlight the message of togetherness and selflessness. Armando said the plays have been discontinued because modern media adequately spread the message. For international students who don’t interact with community members, the dinner is enlightening to the hospitality in the city, Armando said.
“Most international students are confined to campus,” he said. “But there’s a lot to discover. At the time we came here, it was very obvious, the tension of being an international family. But I think our international students have gotten a lot more comfortable. Our town and university have gotten more attuned. There’s not that big of a distinction nowadays, and we think Thanksgiving helps that.”
Punititra Sawadpong, a computer science doctoral student from Thailand, attended the dinner last year and was impressed by the hospitality. Sawadpong’s first college experiences in the U.S. were in or near major metropolitan areas. She’s lived in Starkville for 2 1/2 years, but for the first year, she spent much of her free time in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala.
And outside of Black Friday, she didn’t know anything about Thanksgiving.
“When I first got here, I felt like a minority,” she said. “I just felt more comfortable in a metropolitan city. But once I got to know people here, you see how welcoming people are. And I knew there were a lot of international students here, but I was surprised by how many international people in general that were at the Thanksgiving dinner.”
Ruth said the Thanksgiving dinner has opened some international students’ minds to American churches, even though she stresses the dinner isn’t intended to “Christianize” them.
“Many international students are not Christian, so they become comfortable to associate with people of different religions,” Ruth said. “I remember one student who was so scared to go into a Christian building. She said, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ But it opened her eyes to what other people are doing and the mission of Thanksgiving. It’s a great experience.”
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