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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Thanksgiving Event Provides Food, Fun and History

By Keith Pierce

Every November, hundreds of Old Dominion University faculty, staff and students will do what they do every year ... head home to enjoy family, friends, togetherness and food. But for visiting international scholars, Thanksgiving is a new holiday with unfamiliar traditions and origins. This past Saturday, ODU's Monarch Dining Services and Visa and Immigration Service Advising partnered again to host the International Thanksgiving Gathering, an event in the Webb Centerfor visiting scholars who are here on exchange visas.

"We are always looking for opportunities to engage and connect with our international students and faculty," said Janet McLaughlin, director of dining services. "The exploration of food during the American holiday season is a perfect time to showcase some of the most popular fall fares. There is so much value in learning about different cultures and enhancing experiences by dining together over a great meal."

The event included a traditional Thanksgiving meal, games and even a viewing of last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

"Celebrating this very American tradition is something that I feel embodies the mission of the J-1 exchange program, which is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange," said Kasie Reyes, deputy director for international programs.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program provides opportunities for approximately 300,000 foreign visitors from 200 countries and territories per year to experience American culture. ODU hosts 40-50 exchange scholars yearly. Ranging from three months to two years, the international scholars at ODU serve as visiting professors or collaborate on research and publications on everything from cybersecurity to biomedical engineering. International scholars are each invited by an ODU professor with a goal to collaborate on research.

"Our faculty and visiting scholars are amazing people who are researching anything from cancer cell growth to community resiliency and sea-level rise, to cryptocurrency and global markets,"said Degi Betcher, international student advisor with the Visa and Immigration Service Advising Office. "The program allows U.S. faculty to collaborate with talented international scholars and researchers and enables international scholars to better understand U.S. culture. The individuals then become U.S. cultural ambassadors when they return home."

Uma Maheswari Mangalanathan, a research assistant at Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics who is here from India, and Florian Hauenstein, a German postdoctoral research associate in the physics department, look forward to this year's event.

"This event was wonderful," Mangalanathansaid. "I met many good people, learned the history behind Thanksgiving and enjoyed a delicious meal. I would never miss it!"

"It was a great experience of traditional Thanksgiving food and spirit. I learned a lot about the history of Thanksgiving," Hauenstein said. "I always look forward to the bingo."

The exchange visitors represent countries from all over the world, including China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Iran, Japan, South Korea and Turkey. As described by the U.S. State Department, their visits "promote the exchange of ideas, research, and linkages between research and academic institutions in the United States and foreign countries."

As the sponsoring institution for the visas, ODU's Visa and Immigration Service Advising Office is required to submit a report to the State Department detailing cultural activities provided to the visiting scholars. The International Thanksgiving is a highlight of the report because it emphasizes the exposure to American traditions and facilitates interaction between faculty and the exchange students.

Students, faculty and community members looking to learn more about the International Thanksgiving event should contact McLaughlin at dining@odu.edu or Betcher atintlstu@odu.edu.

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