Hadi Alajmi, president of IUSB's International Student Organization, speaks with Thanksgiving attendees.
Hadi Alajmi, president of IUSB's International Student Organization, speaks with Thanksgiving attendees. (Esha Sarai/VOA)

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - They had her at "pumpkin pie."

Celynn Chan, originally from Malaysia, attended her first American Thanksgiving dinner this week with fellow international students at the South Bend campus of Indiana University.

"I'm really excited. I have a little sweet tooth, so I saw pumpkin pies around, and I really want to try it," she said excitedly.

Celynn learned about the traditional American holiday while helping to organize this event.

On the campus of roughly 5,000 students, 162 are international students on F-1 visas. But at least 300 more are permanent residents of South Bend and consider themselves international students as well.

For more than a decade, the school has organized an annual Thanksgiving feast a week before the holiday. But teaching international students about this American tradition is not the only goal.

"I think a big part of it ... is so that the community is aware of the international presence that's here, because a lot of people really don't know," IUSB student and South Bend native David Pugh said.

The International Student Organization at IUSB is responsible for organizing the school's annual Thanksgiving feast. (Esha Sarai/VOA)

The event is open to the entire South Bend community, as opposed to just the campus, and draws in local residents as well as professors and students.

"We also need to get people to come and participate because some people think that 'Oh, it's done by the International organization so it could be just for international students.'" Celynn explained.

"But no, we just want to say ... you don't have to be another race or anything. Just come here we have free food."

As if free food weren't enough of a draw for most college students, the spread of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and, of course, pumpkin pie, lures in both those who are familiar and those who are curious.

"Man I love mashed potatoes," one student exclaims — a comment met by nodding heads with full mouths.

Even though most international students don't celebrate this specific holiday in their home countries, some say the gathering helps alleviate their homesickness.

"It's important to me just to make sure that I feel personally welcome, and for new students who are coming from outside the country to feel welcome to create an environment that can suit all of them," Hadi Alajmi, president of IUSB's international student organization, said.

The theme of this year's feast, We're Thankful You're Here, is projected on one wall of the dining hall, and is written across free buttons and magnets being handed out to students.

And the message resonates with plenty of students here.

"I felt like I was surrounded by a sort of little family," Khalil Lo Ismaila, who began his studies at IUSB just a few months ago, said after the meal.

After the formal performances, some informal dances kept the event going. (Esha Sarai/VOA)

Though centered around food, the event was far from over after the meal. A presentation on the history of the holiday followed performances from Korean students in the music school.

And after the formal performances, a playlist of music ranging from Bollywood hits to West African hip hop played through the speakers.

Celynn's favorite part of the event was not, as she anticipated, the pie.

"I had high expectations," she said diplomatically, clearing orange and yellow decorations off the tables at the end of the evening.

"But it was still edible."