Through Thanksgiving, Exchange Participants Experience Community-Building Traditions and Give Back Worldwide

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Mouhamed Seck, a YES student from Senegal, spent Thanksgiving in 2017 with his host family in College Park, Md.

Through Thanksgiving, Exchange Participants Experience Community-Building Traditions and Give Back Worldwide

Thanksgiving reminds us that sharing a meal brings communities closer together, at home and abroad. As a popular American holiday, it also helps us think about how important it is to give back and serve others. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs helps create these moments every day through exchange programs.

Sharing Commonalities Over Different Dishes

“During the Thanksgiving season, I realized that hospitality is everywhere! I had a chance to celebrate a new holiday that is about charity and solidarity,” said Mouhamed Seck, a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Program student from Senegal who spent Thanksgiving with his host family in College Park, Maryland, in 2017. “I met more family members who brought lots of different dishes for the celebration. And the most important part is that I got involved and celebrated Thanksgiving together with them. That is one of the most unforgettable moments in my life.”

Enjoying American Traditions Overseas

Once exchange participants experience their first Thanksgiving in the United States, the memories of those traditions stay with them long after they return to their home countries.

Last year, ten YES alumni enjoyed a Thanksgiving celebration at the American Councils office in Prishtina, Kosovo, and brought their home-cooked dishes, inspired by their time in the United States, including Louisiana chicken gumbo, apple pie, chocolate cake, and fried chicken. Everyone drew on their U.S. memories and picked a dish that reminded them of their exchange year, making the food a great conversation starter and an opportunity for alumni to learn more about each other’s experiences.

Giving Thanks Through Outreach

Community service is integral to exchange programs, and nowhere is that more apparent than with American Music Abroad. American musicians who participate in this life-changing cultural exchange participate in community service projects upon returning to the United States, as part of the program. After a 20-day, seven-city tour in China that included public concerts and community outreach, American Music Abroad alumni Buyepongo partnered with the James A. Foshay Learning Center in Los Angeles to conduct a workshop with third through fifth graders. They talked about their experience sharing American music with the world and how they followed their dreams in becoming touring artists. To prepare for Buyepongo’s visit, the Foshay students studied the culture of China and even learned a song in Mandarin that they performed for the group.

In the spirit of cultural understanding and sharing knowledge through English, English Access Microscholarship Program students in La Paz, Mexico, hosted a Thanksgiving celebration with the help of English Language Fellows. Two Access classes came together to create activities, slide presentations, oral demonstrations, and to share a Thanksgiving feast to celebrate the holiday. The experience helped students learn about volunteerism in their communities. They connected these types of activities with their own work in Access and their own efforts in helping their local community in La Paz.

Sharing A Meal As One Big Family

Mehnaz Tabassum, a 2017-2018 Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant from Bangladesh, remembers her first Thanksgiving in the United States as a “one-of-a-kind celebration.” She enjoyed several Thanksgiving meals with new friends, including one hosted by the Vietnamese instructor from her language department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

“There we were at the dinner, people from all different parts of the world, sitting around a table together to enjoy a meal prepared with love and gratitude,” she said. ‘We arrived early to help our hostess by chopping vegetables, preparing salads, and setting up tables.”

“Up until a few months ago, none of us knew each other. But there we were, in that house, in that moment, working, laughing, cooking, and gossiping over food as if we have been friends for decades; as if such a gathering was our annual tradition, and we had been having Thanksgiving together for as long as we could remember. We shared the meal as one big family – a family of strangers, a family of friends.”

We at the State Department are thankful for everyone who opens their home to international students and exchange participants, sharing mutual understanding and American traditions with people from around the world.

About the Author: Becca Bycott is a Social Media Manager with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.