November 21, 2012 5:51:06 PM
STARKVILLE -- It was Thanksgiving Day 1963, in the normally bustling college town of Athens, Ga.
Armando de la Cruz was a graduate student living on the University of Georgia campus and he was in a pinch.
Because of the holiday, the entire campus was closed, including dormitories. No one was allowed to stay, a common practice on many southern college campuses during that era.
De la Cruz, a transplant from the Philippines, had been in the U.S. for less than a year. He had nowhere to go.
"I had to leave the dorm and look for a place to live and places to eat that were off campus during the break," he said.
At the last second, a family de la Cruz had met through a wild set of circumstances in Manila, halfway around the world, invited him to have Thanksgiving dinner with them in Enid, Okla., and offered to buy his plane ticket, too. He accepted without hesitation.
"It was a grand experience," de la Cruz said as he recalled his first Thanksgiving. "It was the first time I had ever even seen or eaten turkey that was prepared that way, and all that food. It was just, wow."
De la Cruz never forgot how special that first Thanksgiving was.
Some years later, when de la Cruz moved to Starkville with his family, he, along with his wife Ruth, felt a need to reach out to the international student community. So the couple began inviting international students from MSU to Thanksgiving dinner.
Years later, that small celebration, which started with a crowd of about 50, has grown tremendously. In 1984, the couple decided to ask for help from the First United Methodist Church, which provided the church's fellowship hall, along with a few volunteers. When the number of attendees outgrew the fellowship hall, the event was moved to the family life center, where it continues today.
De la Cruz estimated that during the past 10 years between 250 and 300 guests have attended the annual feast each year.
A similar crowd is expected for today's Thanksgiving celebration.
"Because Thanksgiving is unique to America, we like to be able to share the experience of a family dinner and share how Thanksgiving became a tradition here," de la Cruz said. "In many countries there is also a festival that celebrates something related to the harvest, so many of the students celebrate Thanksgiving in their own way. Ours is unique because it has a story and relates to the early years of our pioneering country."
Even with all the hard work the de la Cruzes provide, there are still international students on campus who will be hard at work in the computer labs or in the library today, rather than enjoying the American tradition.
Some are OK with that. Others, especially those who have had the chance to experience the annual feast, can definitely feel like they are missing out.
Count graduate student Nash Mahmoud in that latter group.
Mahmoud, who grew up in Jordan and other countries throughout the Middle East, is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science. Last year, a family he knows invited him to his first Thanksgiving. To say he enjoyed it would be an understatement.
"It was the most awesome thing for me; it was the legitimate food, the real deal," Mahmoud said. "And they had a Turducken, a turkey stuffed with a duck that is stuffed with chicken, and the chicken was stuffed with shrimp. You could get like four meats in one bite."
So far, Mahmoud has yet to receive another invitation, and he is not exactly thrilled.
"Most of us will be doing that same thing," Mahmoud said of the single men in the Muslim community. "Unless one of us gets lucky and gets invited somewhere. It happens, but sadly I have not received one yet."
Mahmoud said the reasons and motivations behind Thanksgiving make total sense to him, but the fact that it is only held once a year troubles him. He thinks the food and family celebration is one that should be a more common occurrence in American households.
"Here, in America, it's usually just grab the fastest thing you can to eat and move along," he said. "In the Middle East, every Friday is like Thanksgiving, I really don't remember growing up if I ever missed a single Friday with my family."
As of now, though, Mahmoud will be spending his Thanksgiving in a computer lab, getting ahead on some work.
"I don't want to stay home and do nothing," he said. "I won't be the only one, though. If you come by the computer science building or the electrical engineering building, it's going to be just like any other work day."
The Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the de la Cruz family and First United Methodist in Starkville will begin at 11:30 a.m., with the meal at noon. A 30-minute cultural program outlining the meaning behind the holiday will follow.