For many Columbia students, Thanksgiving break is a much-anticipated chance to go back home, reconnect with family and friends, and enjoy some time off before the start of finals season. The issue with this holiday, however, is its short length—it’s only five days long. For those of us who live just a bus ticket away from home, the trip, and its relatively small price tag, are easily justifiable. For the rest of us left behind on campus, however, these days off can be an emotionally isolating nightmare.
Not all students can justify a trip back home for just a long weekend. Some simply live too far for the plane ticket price to be worth it. Others, like international students, don’t have any family in the country nor any traditional reason to celebrate the holiday. Most glaringly, many of Columbia's low-income students, who are already struggling to meet the high cost of living in New York City, can’t afford the bus ticket even if they live within a day’s travel from Manhattan.
While many of us excitedly count down the days until Tuesday evening, these students dread the week of closed cafeterias, empty dorm floors, and social marginalization as they painfully wait for Monday to arrive. Although Thanksgiving is meant to bring communities together, Thanksgiving break only shows them how left out of the community they really are.
We as Columbia students must make the effort to show that our “community” includes everybody, not just the ones who can get away from campus during the holiday. After all, Thanksgiving is about feeling a sense of belonging somewhere with someone, that you can’t have when left behind in the dorms. The least we can do to help is to bring this sense of belonging closer to campus for those who aren’t able to travel in search of it. And if that means opening up our homes during this holiday, then that’s exactly what we need to do.
Everybody deserves to feel like a part of a community on Thanksgiving, no matter where they are.
While my family and I lived in El Salvador, my parents would host local Peace Corps volunteers for Thanksgiving lunch, knowing from experience how socially isolating their work can be. In Jordan, my Brazilian-American parents would invite every Brazilian in town for dinner, giving them a sense of togetherness that their expat community was sorely lacking. Even just last year while I was deployed to southern Afghanistan, my buddies and I celebrated a very unique Thanksgiving, coming together despite the austere and hostile conditions we faced daily. Nowhere was a sense of community more apparent, however, than in my high school in Jordan, where we made sure to include everybody in our Thanksgiving celebration, especially the ones who usually felt left out.
Every Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my school would host a schoolwide potluck lunch. There were no sign-ups or associated costs—the only requirement was that you contributed something, even if it was something small or store-bought. Representative of my school’s incredibly diverse student body, these dishes would range from kimchi and falafel to turkey and cornbread. This luncheon wasn’t so much meant for us to enjoy a meal with each other, but to bring attention to the oft-ignored members of our greater school community: the Jordanian workers who administratively ran, maintained, and secured the school, yet rarely got the recognition they deserved.
At the beginning of the meal, with all of the Jordanian workers and their families proudly standing up, the senior class president would first address the students and faculty, in both English and Arabic, reminding us that, though we were all far away from our respective homes, we were all family here in Amman. He would then turn to the Jordanian workers and, in Arabic, kindly thank them for hosting us in their country and for their essential contributions to the school, while also reminding them that they are just as much a part of our community as the rest of us.
And with that, we would all—not just a few of us—begin the meal, together. Although we all came from different places, spoke different languages, and had different cultures and traditions, Thanksgiving was our annual opportunity to bring everybody together as a community. No one was ever left out.
Here at Columbia, we should make every effort to replicate that sense of community. Students going home to places nearby should be encouraged to reach out to those staying behind. Local alumni willing to host students should be identified and advertised. Perhaps Columbia could even begin some sort of Thanksgiving registry, where nearby families willing to host others for a home-cooked meal can sign up to be matched with students staying behind on campus. There are already similar programs in effect at universities such as USC, Northwestern, Emory, and UVA, along with many, many others.
By opening our homes during Thanksgiving, we can make this holiday one that everyone looks forward to and no one dreads, as it’s supposed to be.
Kevin Petersen is a first-year student at the School of General Studies, still recovering from his lackluster Calculus 1 midterm. He is excited to finally celebrate a Thanksgiving with his family back home, though he sympathizes with those who can’t. Feel free to write him at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially if you have some other suggestions concerning this issue. His column Different Places, Different People, Different Perspectives runs alternate Fridays.
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