Home away from home for international students

International House’s Thanksgiving Homestay program returns for first time since pandemic

For more than 60 years, many international students who are a long way from home have had the chance to experience a family Thanksgiving in a small Midwestern community.

The International House of Chicago’s Thanksgiving Homestay Program has given thousands of international students the chance to experience the distinctly U.S. tradition with host families in rural communities in southern and western Illinois.

“Working for world peace should be everybody’s business,” wrote the program’s founder, the late Trudy Trogdon, in a paper she wrote in 1958 titled “Thanksgiving in Paris: A Grass-Roots Approach to World Understanding.”

Trogdon, of Paris, Illinois—a community of less than 10,000 people about 165 miles south of Chicago—conceived the idea in the mid-1950s to let students from other countries observe and take part in the daily life of an average Midwestern family and to give the hosts a chance to understand the ideas and perspectives of their guests.

Despite some initial resistance and challenges, Trogdon’s enthusiasm and persistence made her dream a reality in 1956, as she organized her local community leaders and then connected them to international student affairs directors at universities in the Chicago area.

The first year saw 142 students—some with their spouses and children—visit 100 Paris homes. Trogdon later recruited state and community coordinators, and the program grew to other communities, including Geneseo, Morrison, Prophetstown and Rock River Valley.

Program returns after pandemic

Now, after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 35 host families will welcome students from Mexico, Spain, India, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nigeria, Japan and Vietnam this Thanksgiving for a unique four-day experience.

The program is free for students, funded partly by International House, but mostly by the host communities and families, who organize bake sales, luncheons and other fundraisers throughout the year.

The schedule, over the years, has mostly stayed the same: Students arrive by bus to their matched communities on Wednesday, have Thanksgiving dinner with the families on Thursday, and then on Friday can choose from optional local activities, such as hiking in state parks, checking out the Mississippi River (a big draw and favorite outing of past participants), or exploring farms or local museums. On Saturday, all the host families get together for one big dinner before students return to Chicago by bus Sunday.

“It’s become such a tradition in these communities that when we talk to the families, they can’t imagine it being Thanksgiving without international students at their table,” said Denise Jorgens, AM’83, PhD’95, the director of International House. “And for the students, it’s a really unique experience—to not just go to dinner, but to spend four days—you really do have to become part of the family to do that.”

The small rural towns also offer a change of pace from the big cities that most students are used to, as well as a glimpse into small-town America life that they might not get elsewhere. Often, the host families and students stay connected, and will attend weddings, graduations and other events. Some families are even second- or third-generation hosts.

Matching students with families

Steve Caudillo, a state coordinator of the program, helps match students with families based on their applications and needs. Caudillo started hosting students in 1997. The retired recreational therapist said his experience studying abroad as a high school student in Madrid prompted him to get involved.

“I had a summer experience there that was phenomenal; the people in Madrid were very kind to me, and I thought, when I get older and get established, I want to get back into the same kind of thing,” Caudillo said. He’s also found that no matter where they come from, the students and his family have much in common.

“I’ve found over the years, the students, they’re just like me,” he added. “They want to live good lives, want to be productive in society and have good families, friendships and relationships. We all have a lot of the same values and commonalities.”

Sue Fonteyne, of Geneseo, Illinois, has been hosting students since 2006, and she echoed the sentiment.

“I ask a lot of questions, and I like to learn what their hopes and dreams and fears are, and I get really good insights,” she said. “I find that people pretty much have the same hopes and fears from around the world—that’s a part that’s really interesting to me.”

‘True and lasting friendship’

Past student participants of the program have described the special experience of spending four days with their hosts families in hundreds of letters, photographs, news clippings and other materials that Trogdon, who died in 2005, donated to UChicago’s Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center. “The most important thing was that nobody wanted anything from each other, other than true and lasting friendship,” wrote student Indra Patel in 1987.

While the program is limited this year to a smaller number of families and to University of Chicago students, Jorgens is excited for its resumption and growth as International House works to build it back.

“International House Chicago just celebrated our 90th anniversary this past year, so we have a lot of momentum,” she said. “International Houses from around the country have a tremendous impact on international students from all over the world, so for a program like this to be resuming again, it’s just so gratifying for all of us.”

This story was adapted from the UChicago Intranet website