PAWS organization introduces international students to Thanksgiving

Wenzhou, China, junior Esther Zhou and her host family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

By Emily Edwards, Contributor

International students are welcomed into the homes of Baylor students and faculty each Thanksgiving to experience the American holiday.

Melanie Smith, international student relations coordinator, has worked with People Around the World Sharing (PAWS) over the past 18 years, even before her time at Baylor. She wanted to be involved in the Welcome Family Program for the sake of her three children. Raising her children with international students in their home, she taught them that the world is big and filled with many different people who are all wonderful.

“God is huge, God is big and He is colorful,” Smith said. “He has created some wonderful human beings who are different colors, and they talk different, eat different foods and come from many, many backgrounds, but we are all the same. We share the same joys, the same sorrows, the same tragedies, but we can all encourage one another and become one.”

The PAWS program allows international students to be paired with a student or welcome family near Waco. Through the relationship, international students learn about and become exposed to American culture. Smith said the No. 1 request from the international students is to experience an American Thanksgiving.

Each Thanksgiving, two to three cars are sent to Baylor to bring the international students to the Smiths’ house. The students arrive early, allowing them time to help in the kitchen and to play games. Smith’s son and husband play football with the students. She includes the students in the preparations so they get “the full flavor of it all.”

Smith reached out to Wenzhou, China, junior Esther Zhou during her freshman year after noticing she was not on the list for the weekly bus trip to H-E-B. Zhou remembers Smith checking in on her at the beginning of their friendship to see how she was adjusting to life in the United States.

“I have really good conversations with Melanie,” Zhou said. “I’ve become her international daughter.”

The Smith family welcomed Zhou into their home during her first Thanksgiving in the United States two years ago. Showing photographs, Zhou recalled the experience and told about the day’s events.

“American Thanksgiving is like Chinese New Year,” Zhou said. “They are both time for family to get together and spend quality time with one another.”

With lots of food, football and family, Zhou experienced the typical American Thanksgiving. Zhou befriended Smith’s mother-in-law, Betty, when she played “Amazing Grace” on the piano while Zhou sang in both English and Chinese. Zhou and Betty talk on the phone frequently, go out to dinner and sometimes go to church.

Introduced to the PAWS program by his grandparents Richard and Lynn Segura, Waco freshman Drew Gochis has spent the past two Thanksgivings with international students. Gochis’ grandparents have been a Welcome Family through PAWS for over 20 years, inviting international students into their home during the holidays, giving them the full American experience.

Gochis described the Thanksgiving meal as having “the whole nine yards,” complete with staples like turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy. Most of the students are Chinese and have never experienced anything like this before. Gochis said he can see their “brain gears turning,” wondering why Americans come together just one day to have a huge meal.

“When you put them in front of the Thanksgiving meal, their eyes get wide, and they wonder how we are going to eat all this food,” Gochis said. “Sure enough, by the end of the meal, most of the food is gone.”

This year, Smith and her family will host 14 international students from St. Lucia, Japan, China, Nigeria and Kenya. Because many of the international students are not crazy about spicy or sweet food, Smith tries to incorporate a rice or noodle dish that may be more appealing. Now, students bring their own traditional dishes, too.

“I love it because it empowers them that you are going to try their food too,” Smith said. “It is a Thanksgiving of cultures, of life in general and of the friendships that Thanksgiving brings along with the feeling of family.”