#WeAreElliott: Holiday Traditions

To celebrate the diverse traditions of our community, we asked Elliott School students, faculty, and staff to share some of their favorite holiday traditions. On behalf of the Graduate Admissions Office, we are pleased to wish you Happy Holidays and best wishes for 2023!

Carese Bates
Program Manager, Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Lecturer, Part-time Faculty

Carese Bates smiles, wearing a black shirt and orange blazer

I have a large family with a lot of cousins! Every year we have a progressive Christmas party where we go to 3-5 houses with different themes of cocktail spirits, themed food, and sometimes attire. At the last house, we play dirty Santa. Dirty Santa is a Christmas gift exchange where you draw numbers and pick a gift. You can steal gifts or swap gifts for something you like. It is a lot of fun! 


Justin Berry
Student, M.A. in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies

Justin Berry and his wife Kerstin smile together. They are outside in front of several azalea bushes.

My tradition is poking fun at my wife Kerstin for watching those cheesy hallmark holiday movies with the same plot and literally the same actresses/actors.


Andrea Chang and Poofy Chang
Graduate Admissions Officer & Alumna, M.A. in Asian Studies

Andrea Chang, smiles, wearing a white shirt and holding a birthday cake that says "Happy Birthday Andrea." Poofy Chang is an adorable Pomeranian, standing in front of a large vase of flowers. Poofy has a red envelope tied to her collar.

When I can make it back home for Lunar New Year, my favorite holiday tradition was staying up till midnight the day before.  When celebrating with my extended family that would involve taking turns playing mahjong and eating food or sweets throughout the night.  It is also the time where I get to eat my favorite new year treat, niangao, which is like a sweet mochi made from brown sugar.  My family likes coating it with egg before cooking it in a frying pan.


Jasmine Coombs
Student, M.A. in International Development Studies

Jasmine Coombs smiles, wearing a black shirt holding a small gray and white dog.

Every year on Christmas Eve my family unwraps one gift, pajamas! Some years we all get matching pjs and others we get pjs that match our personalities. On Christmas morning, everyone comes downstairs in their new pajamas and my dad makes eggs Benedict for breakfast. 


Yovela Debesay
Student, M.A. in International Development Studies

Yovela Debesay smiles. She is wearing a blue shirt.

My mom grew up Eritrean Orthodox, where they follow a calendar similar to that of the Julian Calendar, the predecessor to the Gregorian calendar most countries use today. Based on that calendar, Christmas is set on January 7th, so in my household we celebrate Christmas both on December 25th, and January 7th!


Hannah Ettelstein
Student Administrative Assistant, Office of Graduate Admissions

Hannah Ettelstein smiles. She is wearing a sweater that is black with "USA" in blue letters.

My favorite holiday tradition is going to the movies and getting Chinese food on Christmas Day with my family.


Igancio Gomez
Student Administrative Assistant, Office of Graduate Admissions

Ignacio Gomez smiles. He is wearing a beige turtleneck and a black jacket.

One of my favorite holiday traditions in the winter would have to be my family’s celebration of Three Kings Day on January 6th. On this holiday we bring together family and friends to celebrate by eating Rosca de Reyes. It is always so much fun being all together, especially when somebody gets a ‘baby’ in their bread as the person who has the most in the end has to throw a party on Valentine’s Day.


Lakeisha Harrison
Professional Lecturer, Part-time Faculty

Lakeisha Harrison smiles. She is wearing a pearl necklace and earrings and a red blazer.

My favorite holiday tradition growing up was cooking holiday meals as a family. My mother did a good deal of the cooking, but we all contributed in major ways. My father was responsible for smoking the turkey outside on the grill, and for making pecan pies. I was on cheesecake and pound cake duty. My brother was the youngest and provided prep work and other assistance to my mother making the sides. My mother made the sweet potato pies by herself because none of us could make them like her!


Erin Heffernan and Rocky Heffernan-Esmail
Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions

Erin Heffernan smiles. She is wearing a blue dress and is at the Elliott School, overlooking the Washington Monument. Rocky Heffernan-Esmail is a brindle dog with a white face, lying down on a grey sofa, wearing a festive red and white patterned Christmas sweater.

My favorite New Years tradition is to spend some time doing reflective journaling to think about what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown in the previous year and also what priorities and intentions I want to set for the new year. It seems that things always go in a different direction from what I planned the previous January, but it reminds me that the journey is the destination and growth is always possible.


Debolina Saha
Student, Master of International Policy and Practice

Debolina Saha smiles. She is wearing a chic all-black outfit.

Diwali (the festival of lights) which is celebrated between 3 to 5 days across India generally in the month of October or November, is my favourite festival. On this day, we decorate our houses by lighting diyas (oil lamps), visit the temple and exchange gifts and greetings. Children and adults burn crackers and most of us wear new clothes. Besides bringing in many wonderful childhood memories, this festival is also special to me because it signifies defeat of evil and victory of truth!


Sara Wolverson
Student, Master of International Policy and Practice

Sara Wolverson, wearing a black shirt and blue pants, sits near the water with trees and the blue sky in the background.

My favorite holiday tradition is something we started as a family during COVID when we were unable to travel or see extended family. My kids created little paper basket placeholders for my husband, me and themselves at the dinner table. Every year now, we each write down on small pieces of paper specific details – memories, qualities or images – about each other that we appreciate, and then we sort the papers into each person’s basket. At Christmas dinner, each person reads aloud the contents of their basket. Sitting as a family and sharing each other’s words of kindness fosters such a wonderful sense of gratitude for the blessings and memories we have shared and cherished together.


Meg Wurm
Career and Academic Advisor, Graduate Student Services

Meg Wurm smiles, wearing a black shirt with a flower pattern.

Every Christmas break my family and I marathon the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies – the extended editions, of course! We’ve been doing this for about 10 years, starting with just the Lord of the Rings and incorporating the Hobbit movies as they came out. It’s my favorite Christmas tradition, and I never get tired of watching them. My favorite parts are Bilbo leaving for his adventure in the first Hobbit movie and Eowyn’s iconic “I am no man” line in Return of the King.


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The #WeAreElliott profile series is managed by the Elliott School Office of Graduate Admissions and highlights current students to answer common questions posed by prospective, incoming, and current students. For more information on this series or to submit questions, e-mail the Office of Graduate Admissions at esiagrad@gwu.edu.The views expressed by students, staff, and faculty profiled do not necessarily represent those of organizations they work for, are affiliated with, or the Elliott School of International Affairs.