GORDONSVILLE — Josceline Edwards held her stomach and groaned.
“It’s like Joey said on that episode of ‘Friends’ where he tries to eat the whole turkey — I should have eaten something earlier to get my body ready for all this food,” said the 21-year-old University of Virginia student.
She surveyed the remnants of the three-meat, two-potato, four-side plate in front of her, shook her head and smiled. It was a rookie mistake.
But Edwards, a native of Oxford, England, had never celebrated Thanksgiving.
If it weren’t for the collective efforts of local churches and nonprofits, UVa’s Lorna Sandburg International Center and the Overseas Student Mission, Edwards and her peers would have missed out on the quintessential caloric glut of belt-loosening, nap-inducing American traditions.
More importantly, said Overseas Student Mission President Bill Bray, the nearly 1,000 participating UVa students — roughly half of the school’s international population — would have missed the chance to connect with Charlottesville-area residents in a meaningful way.
“There’s something about gathering around the table at someone’s home and sharing a cultural experience with them,” Bray said. “Thanksgiving is the best time because Americans are in the mood to welcome strangers into their homes, more so than at any other holiday.”
The need for host families is growing in the region and across the country, Bray noted.
The number of foreign students enrolled in American colleges and universities surged by 6 percent, to more than 764,000, from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 academic years, according to survey results released this month by the nonprofit Institute of International Education.
The top five countries of origin for the 15,169 international students in Virginia are China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, according to the 2012 Open Doors report. Roughly one in four foreign students at American colleges and universities come from China, the study found.
Bray said that more UVa students from China signed up to eat Thanksgiving dinner with local families this year than ever before. The same was true for all foreign students.
“In the 20 years I’ve been involved in [hosting students], this year is the peak,” Bray said. “It’s growing and becoming more and more popular.”
Edwards said that her hostess, Willow Drinkwater, saved her from the tomb-like silence of an empty dormitory.
“You could have heard a pin drop there this morning — everyone is gone,” she said. “[Experiences like this are] so important because the whole point of studying abroad is experiencing how other people live.”
Drinkwater has been setting extra places at her table for international students for nearly a decade. She had to borrow a second table to accommodate the brood of family, friends and students who descended on her Gordonsville home Thursday.
“They make it so much more fun because they bring new traditions,” she said. “There’s something so wonderful about bringing together different points of view, and when I do they become friends for life.”
Lauded by volunteer coordinators as “the hostess with the mostess,” Drinkwater credited her open world view to a culture-rich upbringing. When she was a child her parents welcomed a series of foreign visitors into their home, including a Hungarian symphony director who encouraged Drinkwater’s piano lessons.
“It was so kind of him,” she recalled. “And so in my mind, when people came from other countries they came to make my life better.”
The fruit of that interaction played out around Drinkwater’s table Thursday, as she took to her Baldwin piano to lead guests in a round of “We Gather Together.”
“I wish we had something like this in England,” Edwards said as she prepared to venture outside for a round of croquet after the first round of food.
She’s not sold on candied yams, deviled eggs or Paula Deen.
“She used donuts as a bun for a burger,” Edwards said of the popular Food Network personality, wrinkling her nose. “I mean, that’s just weird.”