A group of four friends sitting together on a bench.

International students at Pomona College get a taste of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner thanks to generous invitations from faculty and staff who, over the years, have been hosting generations of Sagehens in their homes.

Thanksgiving can be a tough time for international students, explains Vedant Vohra, a head mentor for Pomona College’s International Student Mentor Program (ISMP). 

“Making plans for Thanksgiving can often be a big stressor… Homesickness oftentimes peaks at this point in the semester. However, the wider community is very supportive of international students around this time,” he says.

“In the past years, Dean [Miriam] Feldblum has hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at her house, which has been a very popular choice for international students staying on campus. Oftentimes, professors will open up their homes to students, and invite international students to dine with their families for Thanksgiving,” says Vohra. 

In addition to faculty opening their homes for Thanksgiving, some staff also welcome students for the holiday.

Former staff member Neil Gerard and his wife Joan have been welcoming international students, and their friends, for many Thanksgiving dinners– and this year is no different. The tradition started when Gerard was an associate dean and an advisor to the Pomona Mortar Board chapter many years ago.

“We’ve literally had people who’ve never had turkey – who’ve never seen a 24-pound turkey, or had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. So we’re happy to share that with them,” says Gerard who expects to have about eight to 10 international students over to his house this Thursday.

“As I start to carve, the students are over my shoulder with their phones taking pictures,” he says.

In addition to the big turkey, Gerard and his wife will make a number of side dishes, including three different kinds of stuffing, various cranberry relishes, a green bean casserole and at least two kinds of sweet potatoes, among others.

For some international students, like Michelle Kretsch ’13, the experience was so memorable, that it doesn't stop after graduation.

“The Gerards are a fabulous and fantastic family, they were incredibly supportive during my time at Pomona,” says Kretsch, who returned to help cook for the Thanksgiving following her graduation in 2013.

Kretsch, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, says flying to her parents in the Netherlands was not an option. “The family I most associated with here was the Gerard family, so I asked them, ‘Can I come back?’”

Last year, Grete Kütt ’20, who is from Estonia, was invited to the Gerards’ traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

“He invited us over and that was very beautiful to see so many people together,” says Kütt, who says seeing a 20-pound plus turkey was a bit of a surprise. “Most of us there were international students, their host children and their friends.”

This year however, Kütt will join her Oldenborg suitemate Ariane Lo ’20, who is from Singapore and has French and Taiwanese nationality, for a not-so-traditional Thanksgiving – more of a Friendsgiving – at Halona Lodge, Pomona College’s retreat center in Idyllwild, Calif., where they plan to cook up a feast with nine other international friends from across The Claremont Colleges.

What’s on the menu for the friends? Raclette, says Marina Simonnet, who is one of Pomona’s French language residents who lives in Oldenborg Center for Modern Languages and International Relations with Lo and Kütt. Raclette is a popular dish in France that consists of melted cheese and potatoes.

The friends can’t wait. In addition to the cooking and eating, the play to dance and play video games -- and most importantly, spend time together.

“Because we’re international students, we can’t go back to our families so we find ways to spend time together,” says Kütt, who adds that she might also bake Estonian bread.  “We still want to celebrate together even if we don’t have a home to go to [in the United States] so we’ll go to Halona.”

The group of friends is vegetarian, so there won’t be a traditional turkey – but there will be a vegan pumpkin pie that they plan to bake from scratch.

“It’s not the turkey we’re celebrating -- it’s the spirit of Thanksgiving,” says Lo.