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Adopt-a-Student program helps international students experience Thanksgiving

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, seven community families shared their Thanksgiving traditions with about 20 University of Minnesota, Morris international students, who spent the holiday break in Morris.

The stress of being away from home affects many students at some point during their college careers. But for international students, studying halfway around the world comes with its own set of challenges. The UMM Adopt-a-Student Program matches students with community members to encourage relationships between the students and community.

While most students head home for Holiday breaks, it is not always easy or feasible for international students to head home. The UMM Adopt-a-Student program was created in 2008, to match international students with families from the community, with the hope that students would learn more about the community and build supportive relationships with community members. The shorter holiday breaks in particular are good opportunities for students to interact with the American culture and tradition, while building community ties.

Prior to 2009, the residential halls on campus were closed over breaks, forcing students who did not return home to find alternative places to stay. The Adopt-a-Student program was created in 2008 in order to match students with families that they could stay with over breaks. Since then, the program has continued to pair students and community members together, allowing each to share their own culture with the other.

"Holidays can get lonely if students don't go home," said Leslie Gubash, International Students Success Coordinator. "We want to provide students with an opportunity to experience American culture and holidays."

For many international students, their perceptions of American culture are based on media and what they have heard from others. Venturing to a new country can be both exciting and nerve-wracking as students try to digest their new surroundings.

"Internationals students want to see how Americans live," said Pilar Eble, International Student Program Coordinator. "If students don't leave campus, it can be hard to get the full [study abroad] experience."

Groups of three or four students are paired with community families based on their expectations and what they hope to get out of the program. Once the students are matched with a family, it is up to both the students and the families how often they interact and what relationship forms.

"Some relationships develop really strong and other matches don't fit together as well," said Eble. "International students don't have support systems here. This [program] gives them resources for when they have academic [or other] problems."

Chris Butler, along with his wife Jennifer and their daughter Laxmi were one of the families to invite students to attend their Thanksgiving festivities. Both Butler and his wife have traveled internationally several times and know that students can have a tough time around the holidays being away from family members.

The three students helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner by making apple and pumpkin pies, and turkey stuffing from scratch.

"When we travel, we like to experience how other cultures prepare food and thought the students would enjoy being part of the preparations," said Butler.

Having the students over for Thanksgiving not only allowed the Butler family to share their Thanksgiving traditions, but also to learn about the home countries of the students: China and Korea. Almost two years ago, the Butlers adopted their five-year-old daughter Laxmi from Nepal. This past Monday, Nov. 26, the family set out for China to adopt their second daughter, two-year-old Xiang.

"We have traveled a lot but are not familiar with China," said Butler. "Having the students over was very educational for us and our daughter was totally into the experience. We learned about their lives growing up and their culture as well. It was nice for Laxmi to be able to interact with the students."

The Butler family plans to keep in touch with the students and having them over for dinner once they arrive home with their newest family member.