BLOOMINGTON — The tiny kitchen was crowded and a whirlwind of activity, with a lot of stirring, chopping and chatting going on — just like many kitchens during the holiday season.
But this one was a bit different.
Those doing the cooking were from China, Vietnam, Ghana and Indonesia.
They were international students at Illinois Wesleyan University, staying around campus during the semester break.
“We cannot go back home now. Living in a big house like a family is a nice break,” said Air Li, a freshman in physics and environmental studies. “When I’m in China, I like cooking with my family. So, while I’m here, it makes me feel like I’m cooking for my new family.”
Cooking and sharing meals together is an important part of socializing among international students at Illinois State University, too, said Matt Schwab, ISU coordinator of International House programs.
Manchester and Hewitt residence halls stay open during the holiday break, but there is no meal service. Both have kitchens the residents can use and students can check out pots and pans at the front desk, Schwab said.
“Some say music is the universal language, but I kind of think cooking is,” said Reenie Bradley, IWU international student/scholar adviser.
As students chopped chicken and vegetables at a university guest house recently, Bradley urged caution.
“You guys are making me nervous,” Bradley said. “We’re not going to the E.R. tonight.”
Not all students stay in town, even if they can’t go home for the holidays.
The vast majority either travel around the United States — usually in small groups — or visit a fellow student, Schwab said.
Disneyland, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco are popular destinations, he said.
Last Christmas, Nii Akuetteh Tetteh of Ghana, an IWU sophomore in accounting, spent the break with extended family in Tennessee. This year, he is staying in Illinois because he will start an internship in Chicago in January.
Brigitta Jakob, an IWU freshman in economics and international business, celebrates both Christmas and Chinese New Year back home in Indonesia. Her mother in Christian; her father is Buddhist.
“We go to church and have lunch together, but we don’t usually decorate,” Jakob said, adding that she likes seeing the Christmas lights here.
Cong Vu of Vietnam transferred to IWU after spending his freshman year in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“People in Illinois are friendlier and easy to talk to,” said the accounting and marketing major.
“There’s a saying, ‘Go big or go home,’” Vu said. “I would prefer to go big than go home.”
Schwab tries to connect international students with host families in the community. Arranging such interactions “takes it back to the university’s mission of education — including global education,” he said.
One of those community host parents is Lindsay Ziegenhorn of Towanda.
After the recent snowstorm, she invited some international students to join her family sledding at Bloomington’s Highland Golf Course.
“To see the reaction of some of them” to their first time sledding “was an amazing moment,” Zigenhorn said.
She also has had students over for a family game night with her first-grader and third-grader and for home-cooked meals.
“My husband is a phenomenal cook,” she said.
Seven countries — in addition to the United States — were represented at her Thanksgiving table.
“I speak from a mom’s heart,” Ziegenhorn said, explaining her involvement. “They are far from home — miles and miles away. It was a natural fit.”