< International Students in US Experience American Holidays
By Gena Bennett and Dan Friedell
02 December 2023

Researchers report that more than one million foreign students attended college or university in the United States last year. The data comes from the government-supported study called Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

Nearly one-third of those students were studying in the U.S. for the first time.

Just as they are getting comfortable with their classes, classmates, professors and speaking English full-time, school stops for three major American holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.

Sarah Mannix and her students from the English Language Center at Old Dominion University celebrate Thanksgiving at her house. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mannix)
Sarah Mannix and her students from the English Language Center at Old Dominion University celebrate Thanksgiving at her house. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mannix)

What do students do when their routine gets interrupted? VOA Learning English recently spoke with a number of international students to find out.


Most universities take a short break so students can celebrate Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday of November.

American students leave school for four or five days to spend time with their families. But international students do not often have the money to travel home during breaks, so they find themselves on an empty campus.

Lucky ones, however, get to experience the holidays with Americans. Aimee Sanata is from the Dominican Republic. She is studying at the English Language Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Sanata celebrated the holiday with her boyfriend's family. Before the break, she watched some videos on YouTube to learn about the history of the holiday.

"The videos are created for children, so there they explain everything clearly so that anybody can understand it," she said.

First taste of turkey

Many international students say they are excited to celebrate an American Thanksgiving because they have never tasted turkey. Turkeys are large birds mostly raised on farms. Some can weigh more than 10 kilograms. They can take three to five hours to cook.

Sarah Mannix is one of the English instructors at Old Dominion University. She knows it can be difficult for students to find something to do during school breaks. So Mannix invited a number of her students to celebrate Thanksgiving with her.

"They were all really excited when we took the turkey out of the oven because they had never seen cooked turkey before," she said. "Overall, I think they enjoyed it."

In fact, one student has been in the U.S. for six years, but had never tried Thanksgiving turkey before this year.

Victoria Stepanyants grew up in Russia and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. She studied at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and is now in medical school in Cleveland, Ohio. So she has a lot of experience with the school holiday breaks.

She often spent Thanksgiving with other international students and friends. They did not usually prepare traditional foods. But this year was different.

"That was actually the first time that I've been to Thanksgiving, where the food was, like, ‘Thanksgiving food,'" Stepanyants said. "It was the food I expected to see based on the way the media covers American Thanksgiving."

International students are not just at universities. Sofia Montanari is from Bologna, Italy and is in high school in the Midwestern state of Missouri. She said she knows sharing meals are a good way to connect with new people. So she brought food from Italy to the Thanksgiving she spent with an American family.

"I really like (the idea) that they show me some of their culture and I show some of mine back," she said.

One part of the Thanksgiving culture she enjoyed was the idea of giving thanks. People often talk about what they are thankful for before the Thanksgiving meal.

"It's always good to be thankful for what you have," she said.

Long breaks, dark and cold days

After Thanksgiving, students get back to school to attend classes and take exams, but about three weeks later, another break starts. Most schools close from mid-December until the last week of January.

That long period was hard, at first, for Stepanyants. Cyprus has a warmer climate. She said the island has over 300 sunny days per year. Her experience in the U.S. was very different.

"As soon as it hit October, November," she said, "the sunlight is gone. It gets colder. I think it's automatically depressing for anyone who is not used to it."

For international students, she said, it is important to maintain a regular schedule and spend time with people.

International students should speak up if they are concerned about being lonely during school breaks. For Stepanyants, such discussions came naturally as she got to know other international students. At that point, they would make plans to spend time together during the breaks.

When she lived in Baltimore, she would take day trips with other international students to nearby cities such as Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Sometimes, Stepanyants said, the breaks can be boring. But if students talk about their concerns they can make plans.

"If you have other international student friends, it's good to just bring it up because they end up in a similar situation then actually, like, the long breaks can be a lot of fun."

At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the campus is closed during the last week of December. But international students are permitted to stay in their rooms during the winter break.

Dan Sinetar is a part of the staff that works to help international students feel at ease. He said people who live close to the university can take part in a program to make tasty "holiday treats" for international students.

Students who are staying at the university during the break can also take short winter term classes.

Stepanyants said, students should be sure to talk with someone at their university's international student office about activities for the holidays such as Christmas and New Year's during the long breaks.

"For example, at my school, they would sometimes do whole celebrations that international students could come to and just like have events over the long breaks for people to not feel super isolated, which was nice."

Visitors from home and trips to see family

Students at Montanari's school are not permitted to stay on the campus during Christmas break. They have to make other plans. Last year, her parents came to visit the U.S. for two weeks. They visited New York and Washington, D.C. together. They also spent some time in the town where Sofia attends school.

The rest of the break Sofia spent with a host family.

Stepanyants, the medical student, has a younger sister who is attending college in the U.S. In recent years, they have been able to see each other during breaks, which makes them both feel better and less lonely.

Other students do make it back home. Sanata is traveling to the Dominican Republic for Christmas break because her brother is getting married. She is thankful because she misses her family so much. She said she also misses speaking Spanish.

For students who cannot get home, they try to stay connected to family. New Year's is the most important winter holiday for Stepanyants. When she could not get home, she would have meals with her family by video call after cooking traditional foods.

"It's a very huge meal that you cook all day. And presents happen on New Year's too. Then, there are fireworks," she said.

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Gena Bennett.

Gena Bennett and Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English.


Words in This Story

routine –n. something that happens regularly or daily

interrupt –v. to stop something from happening

campus –n. the location of school or university buildings and residences for students

traditional –adj. a way of doing things that has taken place for many years

automatic –adj. something that happens without deliberate thought

depressing –adj. a condition of unhappiness

lonely –adj. the feeling of being alone or without other humans

boring –adj. a dull feeling or lack of excitment

isolated –adj. the condition of being alone or far away from others

host –n. a person who welcomes others to an event or puts on an activity

We want to hear from you. What would you do during school breaks if you were studying in the U.S.?

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