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At MSU, a Thanksgiving dinner for students who stay behind

Juan Flores

Anyone who’s ever been stuck on campus for Thanksgiving knows it’s kind of depressing.

“Just seeing everybody leaving with their luggage, and you’re left behind, you know it’s going to be a long weekend,” says Denise Cruz, a senior at Michigan State University.  “And it does make you feel a bit out of place. Like you have nowhere to go.”

Juan Flores knows that feeling well.

When he was a student at MSU in 2003, he was one of those who stayed behind for the holiday – either because they can’t afford to go home, don’t have a place to go, or are international students.

Michigan Radio's State of Opportunityteam looked at what this time of year is like for students who come from foster families or are homeless. 

“And we were on campus and noticed that everything was closed. The whole campus – including dining services – basically shut down for the long weekend,” says Flores.

Most students who remained were eating lonely meals in their dorm rooms, he says, made up of whatever they could scrounge from a campus convenience store.  

“So my buddy decided to go door to door in his dorm, and he invited people to have a meal in one of these classrooms that was open,” says Flores. “So we all pitched in, went and got some food from a Meijer that was open, and fed about 35 students that day. That was the spark. And we made sure to do it every year after that.”

Flores kept what's now called the Thanksgiving “Fellowship Day Dinner” going through the rest of his undergraduate and graduate career at MSU.

Credit Juan Flores

Now he’s a coordinator in MSU’s Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions, and even organized sponsorships for the event from the university and a few local restaurants.

“Right now we serve over 400 students,” though some years it’s been up 1,000 Flores says.

“They come in waves for the whole three hours. They eat, get seconds, we have music playing and giveaways. I walk around with other coworkers who volunteer, talking, asking them questions, making them feel like they matter. So that they have that warm, family meal.”

Denise Cruz, the MSU senior, started coming to the Thanksgiving Fellowship Day Dinner as a freshmen.

She’s from Mission, Texas, so home for her is “1,300 miles away,” which feels especially far when campus starts clearing out for the holidays. 

“Being away from home and not having nowhere to go, [the fellowship day dinner] is a great way of just spending some time with people. And it’s not only for out-of-state students, it’s also for international students, [everybody] just interacting with the Michigan State Community. It’s very homey and very welcoming.”

Now that she’s in her final year at MSU, Cruz is volunteering to help out with the Thanksgiving event.

“This year I am volunteering. It’s a very family-feeling, being there, you know. You’re part of a family. It’s a feeling on that day, you know, you want to spend time with family,” she says. “And just by being there and being around other people, they’re in the same situation as you are. And you’re just trying to have a good time, so it does make it a better feeling.”

The Thanksgiving Fellowship Day Dinner is held on November 26, from 2-5 pm in the Brody Neighborhood Classrooms in East Lansing. The event is free, and all are welcome. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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