Jok Thon didn’t grow up on Thanksgiving. But this year, the international student plans to travel to Indianapolis with his host family to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving feast: turkey, side dishes, and more.
Thon, 32, born in what is now South Sudan and now at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, said he had not heard what most of his international student peers would do during the holidays.
Joby Taylor, Thon’s host and director of the Shriver Peaceworker Fellows program at UMBC, imagines not everyone would be stumbled like Thon.
Since not all students go home for the Thanksgiving break – either due to distance or financial constraints – area universities have taken steps to ensure that no one is left without a hot meal they crave by adapting their cafeterias and pantries food for those who stay. And because some schools only give students three days off, many out-of-state students are finding ways to celebrate the holidays in Baltimore.
The number of students staying at local colleges this year will vary, according to surveys conducted by the schools.
Stephan Moore, vice president of student affairs at Coppin State University, said 70 students indicated they were likely to stay on campus over the holidays. Matthew Moss, assistant vice president for meals at Johns Hopkins University, said he expects nearly 300 students to stay. Kevin Banks, vice president of student affairs at Morgan State University, said the number of students who stayed in previous years ranged between 200 and 300.
Some international students choose not to go due to the pandemic or travel costs.
Bohua Wan, who is from Beijing, lives in Tuscany-Canterbury and is a first-year computer science doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University.
“There are a lot of procedures you have to follow: COVID tests and a three-day quarantine,” said Wan, 25.
He said he and his girlfriend are going to the mechanical engineering department’s Thanksgiving luncheon.
Bill Chen, 24, also lives in Tuscany-Canterbury and is a PhD student in mathematics at Hopkins.
Chen, originally from Nanchang, China, wishes he could go home, but a round-trip flight costs nearly $5,000. He and his friends plan to eat out on Thanksgiving.
“I know it’s a very important festival here,” Chen said. “I try to enjoy the atmosphere.”
Aside from international students, food insecure students and those dependent on dining hall plans may choose to stay on campus for financial reasons.
Food insecurity is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as the lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. According to a 2016 Hunger on Campus report, 20 percent of students in four-year schools have experienced food insecurity.
Inflation and rising cost of living can lead to an increase in these numbers.
Malissa Rivera, coordinator of service learning and student engagement at the University of Baltimore’s Rosenberg Center for Student Engagement and Inclusion, said the campus pantry has seen its numbers double in the past year. More than 60 people have used the pantry this semester, Rivera said, which is open to students, alumni, staff and faculty and stocks items like frozen foods, canned goods and non-food essentials like diapers.
“I feel it too, and I’m not a food insecure person, seeing how much prices have gone up everywhere,” Rivera said. “People who were experiencing food insecurity are probably experiencing it more now.”
Maryland universities say they have options for food-insecure students when campuses close for the holidays.
“We want to partner with students who have nowhere to go or want to stay and use our resources,” Moore said.
Moore said the university, which closed on Tuesday, has a partnership with Thompson Hospitality, a minority-owned food service provider, to feed students. Coppin State junior Jawaad Williams, 20, who sits on the student activities planning council, said he and the organization help raise awareness among students about resources they can use or to volunteer their time.
“Whether it’s food drives or soup kitchens, we connect students with this information,” Williams said.
The University of Baltimore honor society, Omicron Delta Kappa, is conducting a campus pantry supply drive, Rivera said. The initiative, which began on November 14 and continued through the end of the year, focuses on items such as toiletries, baby wipes and diapers, as well as cooking essentials such as pots and pans.
The pantry opened Monday for community members to grab last-minute essentials for the upcoming vacation, Rivera said.
Moss said the Hopkins Dining Room will have at least one dining room open throughout the holiday, as has been the tradition in recent years.
For the December holidays, Moss said the Hopkins Dining Room will remain open for the first time.
Banks said Morgan State food services will continue through the Thanksgiving break, albeit on a modified schedule. Additionally, the university’s Food Resource Center opened last week for students to purchase produce and other items. In addition to food, Banks noted that the counseling center will also be open during the break.
“In the last two years, [students] lost some important loved ones,” Banks said. “And so we use a holistic approach to make sure students are being nurtured physically, but then we want to make sure we are nurturing them emotionally.”
At UMBC, spokeswoman Dinah Winnick said students who stay over Thanksgiving break can receive a package of food they can prepare in the campus kitchens.
UMBC international student Thon said he has no plans to cook while in Indianapolis, but is happy to help out in the kitchen.
Thon’s host Taylor said he hasn’t spent Thanksgiving with his entire family together in about 20 years. Four generations of Taylor’s family will be in attendance at the rally.
“Jok gave us the good impetus to do it,” said Taylor.
Thon said he’s excited to make the 11-hour journey and celebrate with Taylor’s family, especially since Thanksgiving is not a part of South Sudanese culture.
“This spirit should continue,” Thon said. “Those kinds of cultures help us reflect on the people who need our support and really help us strengthen our community that we need to build, which is the most important thing.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Maya Lora contributed to this article.