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Local residents share Thanksgiving with foreign students

STANFORD -- Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, has a distinctly international flavor at the Bulf home in Palo Alto, Calif.

Indeed, for retirees Mary and Gene Bulf, the day just wouldn't be the same without inviting at least one or two international students from Stanford University to share in the festivities.

"Their eyes pop and their mouths drop open when they see the size of the turkey," chuckles Mary, who usually cooks up a 22-pound bird for her guests, along with mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry pie. "They especially like hearing about the tradition of breaking the wishbone."

Mary, a retired schoolteacher, and Gene, a retired appliance salesman, have been inviting Stanford international students into their home since 1983, when they joined the Community Committee for International Students at Stanford's Bechtel International Center.

Now in its 41st year, the committee consists of more than 500 local volunteers - including many retirees like the Bulfs - who welcome international students and their families at the airport; answer questions about banking, shopping and child care; and provide year-round hospitality.

The volunteers also host a variety of educational programs for the students and their spouses at the International Center, ranging from conversational English practice sessions to informal courses on American cooking, customs and institutions.

Because of their long-standing interest in Japan, the Bulfs usually have been matched with Japanese students.

Typically, they have the students over for dinner several times a year and engage them in conversational English practice sessions at the International Center. Gene also sometimes takes them on walks at Stanford's Jasper Ridge nature preserve, where he is a volunteer docent.

The Palo Alto couple has particularly happy memories of Taeko and Kazu Hoshi, and Maki and Hiroshi Asano, who shared Thanksgiving dinner with them in 1988.

"They were so interested that they came over the day before and watched me get all the stuff ready for the turkey," Mary recalled fondly.

"Most Japanese don't have ovens and they don't buy meat in large quantities, so they were fascinated by the turkey. After it was roasted, they all went into the kitchen to watch my husband carve it. I usually send some of the leftovers home with them."

The Bulfs' home is full of presents brought by the Japanese students to thank them for their hospitality, including a vase, folding screen and sandalwood fan.

For Mary, though, the greatest reward has been getting to know the students themselves.

"These students are just the cream of the crop and we feel very fortunate to meet them," she said. "We've developed some very close, special relationships. Taeko still writes me some beautiful letters."

Each year, about 30 to 40 students at the International Center sign up to have Thanksgiving with a local family - indeed, it's one of the most popular programs offered, according to Ann Rutherdale, president for continuing programs.

"In some ways, it's more important to the international students than Christmas, just because it's so American," she said. "Students enjoy being part of a family again, and they are amazed at the volunteer spirit that is here.

"We're always looking for host families," she added. "Anybody who wants to join us as a host can, no matter what their nationality. We try to match students up with families based on shared personal interests."

(To volunteer as a Thanksgiving host, or to learn more about volunteering for any of the activities sponsored by the Community Committee for International Students, please call hospitality chairperson Judith La Vuolo Bhushan at (415) 424-8110.)



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