Last Friday afternoon, when most Yale students were at home enjoying leftover turkey sandwiches, Imran Bhaloo ’10 rolled out of bed around 4 p.m. and headed to the Office of International Students and Scholars for a dinner of pasta and salad.
Like many international students, Bhaloo, who is from Tanzania, did not return home over Thanksgiving break. Instead, he stayed in the Elm City and took advantage of the free dinners local New Haven restaurants offer to Yale students staying over Thanksgiving and spring breaks through a collaboration among the Secretary’s Office, the International Students’ Organization and OISS.
The meals — which were attended by approximately 130 students every night of the break — are open to all Yalies, although most diners are international students.
Participating students interviewed said the meals provided an opportunity for them to meet their peers and share a hot dinner on what would otherwise have been a lonely evening.
“It was a good way to start activities in the break when you had nothing to do,” Bhaloo said.
The OISS started offering food to students at Yale over Thanksgiving break in 2005 and partnered with the Secretary’s Office to make the option official in fall 2006.
Director of OISS Ann Kuhlman said before the free dinners were instituted, students in New Haven over the holidays were faced with the prospect of cooking for themselves or purchasing food at restaurants that were often expensive. The OISS meals have not only resolved the problem presented by the absence of dining-hall services during the break but have also allowed students to socialize when an unusually quiet campus makes finding company difficult.
This year, organizers of the dinners at OISS said they sent out an e-mail a week before break to the ISO panlist, which is much larger than the official OISS international-students list, as well as to other students with student visas and to participants in the summer Orientation for International Students.
Bhaloo, who is the social chair of ISO, said he even asked his college master, Mary Miller of Saybrook College, to forward the e-mail to the entire college and invite other students staying over the break to participate in the meals. Using Survey Monkey, he said, students were able to RSVP for any of the days they wanted to attend. There were close to 150 requests for each night, he said, and while the room was often filled to capacity, fewer students attended nightly than promised, and OISS never ran out of food.
“We were maxed out at 120 people,” Kuhlman said. “Some were sitting on the steps and others on the floor.”
Dinners ranging from pasta and pizza to Thai and Chinese — while not exactly multi-course gourmet meals — certainly satisfied the students in attendance, Kuhlman said.
But she said the opportunity for “companionship for a couple of hours” was just as attractive to Yalies as the free food.
Fatima Husain ’10, the ISO outreach chair, said the dinners were especially helpful in introducing freshmen to upperclassmen.
“There’s a lot of internationals you don’t get to see, because we’re so dispersed during the year,” she said.
But not all students were as enthusiastic. Thomas Koenig ’10, a sophomore from Germany, said he mostly went out for dinner at local restaurants with his friends.
Koenig said even perks such as the karaoke machine available during dinner failed to meet his expectations. He was turned off last year by what he said was “some awkward karaoke,” and he left immediately after a tepid reception to his and his friends’ rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Since most American students are at home to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families, he said, the gatherings were predominantly comprised of international students, which he said was overwhelming.
“I don’t like being reminded I’m international all the time because I feel like I’m part of a larger community,” he said.
Some residential colleges offer other eating options throughout the week for students like Koenig who choose to opt out of dinners at OISS. All college masters invite students to share Thanksgiving dinner in their homes or at a nearby restaurant.
Miller said college-sponsored outings to restaurants such as Bar and Thai Taste provided “social glue” for students left at the University over the holiday. Saybrook has offered this meal option for several years, she said.
Neither OISS nor residential graduate-affiliate programs provide dinner to students on Thanksgiving Day.
Instead, college masters encourage students to eat Thanksgiving dinner in their college communities. Miller said students came by her house throughout the day to peel potatoes, bake pies and set the table. After the dinner, she said, those in attendance sat down to play Pictionary.
Although, like most international students, he does not celebrate Thanksgiving in his home country, Bhaloo said after attending Miller’s Thanksgiving dinner last year he has a greater understanding of the holiday. He said he still does not fully comprehend the historical context of Thanksgiving, but he said the gathering is similar to the Muslim religious observance of Ramadan.
“It reminded me of Eid, with the whole family sitting down to eat,” he said.
Kulhman said the Thanksgiving holiday comes at an opportune time for international students, when many are starting to get homesick and need the support of a group of peers who share the experience of staying on campus after The Game. And she said the communal meals, whether at OISS or at individual colleges, allow these students to participate in the spirit of Thanksgiving.