The turkey was ready, along with the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. An arrangement of pies sat patiently on the next table. Cups were full of apple cider and plates were ready to be topped with food. Though the weather outside was beyond chilly, inside everyone was gathered on couches, meeting new people and exchanging stories.
It’s easy to imagine this Thanksgiving scene taking place at Grandma and Grandpa’s place, but on this occasion, those relatives were nowhere to be found. This was the Transitions and Questbridge Thanksgiving dinner in Jewett House.
Transitions and Questbridge are two programs on campus geared towards helping low-income, first-generation students find a place for themselves on campus. They also serve to provide a family experience for these students.
Being away from home continuously proves to be a challenge for college students of any year and any background. Transitions intern and former Questbridge secretary Maya Enriquez ’17 described this experience for first-year students as a culture shock, explaining, “You’re thrown into the college scene, and although it’s really liberating, it’s also disorienting and lonely.”
She pointed out that being away from home during the holidays is another challenge in and of itself. “As a kid,” she remarked, “you sit back and enjoy Thanksgiving. But when you’re on campus, you’re on your own to [figure] things out.”
Students who stay on campus during this time of year have to watch their peers board the shuttles home and listen to professors wish the class a nice break with family. Questbridge Representative and Transitions student Lisset Magdaleno ’19 described the experience, saying, “At times it’s sad that there’s nowhere off campus to go home to, but I chose to come here knowing that I’d be faced with this feeling.”
Transitions student Jasmine Rodriguez ’19 also felt the weight of the empty campus. She explained, “It feels so weird at night to walk around to your dorm and not see any lights on. You can definitely feel the emptiness.”
However, as Magdaleno explained, these students came prepared to face this experience. Rodriguez reflected, “I thought I would be more sad during this time, but my parents raised me to be independent and strong. Plus, I’m not alone here because I have my Transitions family with me.”
This year was the first time that Questbridge and Transitions teamed up to provide a family dinner for their students. Last year, Enriquez cooked for the Questbridge dinner. As she explained, “That was the first time I’d cooked a turkey for anyone, and only 11 people showed up. While it was fun, it was also disappointing, and it didn’t make sense to me and Questbridge and Transitions would do separate events.”
This year’s dinner, however, turned out to be a complete success. Enriquez excitedly recalled, “There was a point when everything was up in the air and I didn’t know if the dinner would happen this year. When it did happen, it made me so happy to know that we were providing a space to get the community together.”
She continued, “I got to see new people talking to each other and everybody was sharing stories and bonding. It made me feel really good to see that.”
Food is the most important part of Thanksgiving, and several students reflected on how this meal offered them a sense of home. “It made me so happy to actually have turkey and mashed potatoes just like back home,” said Rodriguez.
For Magdaleno, this dinner was a new experience. As she explained, “Back home, we always cooked Mexican food for Thanksgiving dinner, so this was my first holiday that involved the American dinner.”
Rodriguez also reflected on home holiday experiences, “I really miss the conversations with my family. I would eat with my brother and listen as my aunts’ laughter filled the room.”
Not being able to spend the holiday at home transformed the way these students thought about family. For Enriquez, this time of the year is always a reminder of what matters. She stated, “This is a time to take a break and bring the family together. Being here made me appreciate the moments that I am home and when I don’t have to figure everything out on my own.”
Magdaleno, too, expressed these sentiments, reflecting, “I was actually just thinking about how last Thanksgiving I didn’t know where I’d end up. And now that I ended up so far away from home, it’s made me appreciate my family more during this time that everybody expects you to be with them.”
For Rodriguez, this time of year made her appreciate her new family on campus. She shared, “It’s nice to know that I’ll always have my main family, but at the same time I have a family at Vassar.”
She continued to explain the impact that Enriquez, who was her Transitions intern, has had on her time here on campus, “Maya has been like a little mom to me. My parents even know her and sent her a little gift for Thanksgiving,” she said.
Programs like Transitions and Questbridge continue to play an instrumental role in the comfort students feel on campus. Transitions has made the biggest difference in Rodriguez’s first semester. While talking about her first experiences with the Transitions summer program, she stated, “I cried on the first and last day of that week because there was such a family dynamic and it felt so nice. We were all shy and scared and from similar backgrounds, and I felt so supported.”
Magdaleno also feels the support of these programs, “Questbridge is such a great resource for me, and it’s nice to know that they’re willing to do so much to make sure I don’t feel alone during the holidays.”
During this time of gratitude and family, Magdaleno, Rodriguez and Enriquez were able to make a home for themselves and find plenty of things to be thankful for. As Rodriguez stated, “Transitions has helped me so much, but what I’m most thankful for this weekend is the retreat meal swipe plan.” Magdaleno shared this feeling, “During this time, I’m thankful for a lot, but I’m especially thankful for two things: this family on campus and the meal swipe plan.”