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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Giving thanks from afar: Why some UF students are not heading home for the holidays

UF international students, graduate students are spending Thanksgiving away from family

<p>Traditionally a meat- and dairy-heavy holiday dinner, Thanksgiving is handled differently by students with vegan and vegetarian diets.</p>

Traditionally a meat- and dairy-heavy holiday dinner, Thanksgiving is handled differently by students with vegan and vegetarian diets.

Raised among the vibrant city streets and playful neighborhoods of Kumasi, Ghana, in West Africa, Melvin Osei Opoku sighs with a smile whenever he thinks of home. More than 6,000 miles away for nearly three years, the 21-year-old UF biomedical engineering sophomore celebrates every holiday in the States.

“It becomes a little lonely,” Opoku said, recalling each holiday break he spent on UF’s campus. “It really hits me harder during the breaks.” 

Opoku is just one of the several students, international and native, spending their Thanksgiving holiday away from those they have long celebrated with. Whether thousands of miles apart from their hometown or swarmed with studying for final exams, circumstances of all sorts are keeping many from their family dining tables this week. 

Opoku’s last memories of his home country lie in the days before leaving for United World College-USA in Northwest New Mexico to pursue the International Baccalaureate program, a worldwide college-prep program for high school students. 

Stepping foot on U.S. soil for the first time in December 2020, Opoku said he was taken aback by the “more quiet, peaceful” temperament of the citizens, opposite to those he met in Ghana.  

“From my experience…[the U.S.] is so dissimilar to Ghana,” he said. “In Ghana, people are running about, jumping…all kinds of emotions.” 

But upon beginning his freshman year at UF in Fall 2022, the college’s social scene came as an even bigger cultural shock. To Opoku, no schedule dictated his time, contrary to how his friends functioned. 

“Relying on [spontaneity] to interact with other people is not going to work, and that’s what I relied on the most,” he said. “Americans are more cautious of their time.” 

Nonetheless, Opoku said he acclimated into American society just like he hoped to, making friends with fellow students and professors who would invite him into their homes for the holidays. 

Last Thanksgiving, he feasted at the dinner table of UF chemistry professor Alexander Angerhofer, while celebrating a ‘White Christmas’ with a friend in Boston, he said. 

But Thursday, Opoku will reunite with his host family from his high school years. A Ghanaian family of four living in Atlanta, they were all but eager to take in someone just like them. Opoku said the patriarch reached out to him after reading a news article written about Opoku. 

“He’s trying to help me [assimilate] into the American culture,” Opoku said. “That’s been really helpful. There is so much I have to thank him for.” 

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As for Eva Frost, a 20-year-old UF pre-professional biology senior, her experience as an American student is all too similar to her international peers. The last Thanksgiving she spent with her parents was in 2020, before they moved across the hemisphere to Hong Kong. 

As the daughter of a diplomat, moving from state to state and country to country was the norm throughout her childhood. Born in Maryland, her family then moved to North Carolina when she was 6, followed by India and Boca Raton, Florida, where she spent all of high school. 

“I start to get a little bit stir-crazy if I’m in one place for too long,” she said. “It was a really invaluable experience.” 

As a pre-medical student consumed by her coursework and parents with a busy work life, Frost arranges to spend winter breaks in Hong Kong while her parents spend summers in the U.S. 

As for Thanksgiving celebrations, her plans are always uncertain. For the last two Thanksgivings, Frost has spent time in Texas and Utah with her paternal side of the family. But this year, she has been invited to spend the holiday alongside friends at the university. 

“The first year was pretty tough because I wasn’t on my feet quite yet,” she said about her first Thanksgiving away from her parents. “It was scary; I felt alone.” 

Separated from her parents by a 13-hour time difference, Frost said she finds it difficult to keep in regular contact with them. But WhatsApp calls and letters have allowed her to manage any communication she can with them. 

“It’s irritating,” she said about the large difference between time zones. “But my dad only gets five hours of sleep anyway, so he’s available pretty often.” 

Although appreciative to spend Thanksgiving with friends this year, Frost said she dreads the idea of possibly not celebrating another one with her parents for a while, as she prepares to apply to medical school. 

“If I were to do Thanksgiving with them, I would probably spend a third of the time traveling,” she said about the nearly 36-hour flight to Hong Kong.

Seth Garfield, a 22-year-old UF law student, said he is grateful to be just a four-hour drive away from his home in West Palm Beach. Finals week, however, is something he finds difficult to be thankful for. Being knee-deep in studying, he said, is keeping him from traveling south for Thanksgiving dinner with his family this week. 

“The first year of law school is a learning curve,” Garfield said. “I need this time to prepare.” 

Nonetheless, his family has decided to bring the Thanksgiving feast to him. Away from home during Thanksgiving break since his sophomore year at UF, he said the thought of cooking up classic holiday dishes alongside his mother and father is just the study break he needs at this time. 

“Although I will spend some time cooking,” he said. “I will be able to study for finals and spend time with [family].” 

Contact Jared Teitel at jteitel@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @jaredteitel.


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Jared Teitel

Jared Teitel is a third-year journalism major, and this is his second semester as an Avenue reporter. In his free time, he enjoys running, shopping, and drinking coffee. 


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