My College:
Family Life

Gifts Straight from Your Student's Heart

Laura Tobar

November and December bring lots of fun things, but for college students, there's something else on the calendar: finals.

This time of year, we’re either dreading them, working non-stop in the middle of them, or battling to put the horrific experience of recently completed exams and harrowing group projects in the past.

Finally we wipe the sweat from our brows, snap out of our coffee-induced delirium, and relax…until we remember that the holidays are here, and we were so busy cramming that we totally blanked on finding gifts for our loved ones.

Often time isn't the only issue — it's cash. So, the dilemma stands: what thoughtful presents can a college student give without using up a lot of time or money?

I’ve found myself in this situation a number of times and, without fail, I'm stressed out by the prospect of having nothing to offer my family members who are so generous and thoughtful. As many times as my parents say they don’t want or need any gifts, I still feel like they deserve to receive something that shows them how much I care.

What I’ve learned is that it isn’t necessary to spend an exorbitant amount of time or money in order to tell someone they’re special to you. With a little creativity and reflection, you can absolutely make something meaningful for the people you love.

If you’re at a loss for ideas (or you know someone who might be), here are some unconventional gifts that I’ve had success with over the years.

1. Try Your Hand at Poetry

Writing poetry may seem daunting if you aren’t already a poet, but it’s actually one of the easiest ways to show someone how much you value them.

You don’t need to be a wordsmith to make a good poem — so much of poetry’s beauty is the emotion you put into it. Even if you don’t think what you’re saying is super poetic, your love for the person you’re writing for will come through.

And it’s really touching to have a poem written just for you. I wrote a poem for my grandfather at Christmastime years ago (I was around 10 at the time, so it definitely wasn’t a literary masterpiece), and he still brings it up more than a decade later. It goes to show that just attempting to capture in words how much someone means to you is worth more than a lot of traditional gifts, and it costs nothing!

Need a bit more encouragement, and some fun prompts? Check out "Writing Poetry for Beginners."

2. Put On a Specially Dedicated Performance

Whether you’re a violin prodigy or exclusively a shower-singer, your loved ones take a lot of pleasure in your talents. It might seem like a small offering, but your parents, grandparents, siblings, significant others, aunts, uncles and cousins are proud of you, and for them, it’s a gift to see you putting your skills to use.

I’ve experienced this firsthand, because my sibling is a great singer and guitar player, but they don’t perform often. On the rare occasion they’re experimenting with a new song and send me a clip, my mom practically begs me to forward it to her as soon as she hears me play it, however goofy or unpolished the recording may be.

Even if you aren’t conventionally “creative,” you have something to offer. If you and your parent both love football, find a video clip of your favorite iconic play and add your own sportscaster commentary.

It will mean more than you think to give someone you love a little piece of your talent that they can play on-demand. So thespians, prepare a monologue, and dancers, start stretching!

3. Give the Gift of Your Own Artwork

If you’re on the artsy side of the spectrum, consider creating a piece of artwork as a gift. It’s super special to give someone an original drawing or painting they can display in their home, knowing it was made just for them.

If you’re no Picasso, that’s no problem! Take a cool photo on your phone or make a collage with old magazines you have sitting around. Every holiday season, I make paper snowflakes for my family to hang on our windows. It isn’t much, but I put a lot of care into creating intricate designs, and because their daughter made them, seeing the snowflakes always gives my parents some holiday cheer.

You can elevate your sketch or painting with a homemade frame — there are lots of ideas on the internet. Here's a YouTube video about how to make an easy frame out of just cardboard and decorative paper:

4. Make a Curated Playlist

This summer, I played a song for my brother and he loved it so much it was his most listened-to song this year.

It was satisfying that he liked my music, but it was even more awesome to know that I’d helped him find a track he’ll listen to and enjoy for a long time.

Introducing someone to their new favorite song is rewarding for both of you, and you don’t have to spend a penny to make it happen. If you know a friend’s musical preferences well (or if you want to expand their horizons), give them a playlist! They'll love that you would take the time to gather songs that remind you specifically of them.

If the person is a music aficionado and you’re worried you won’t be able to come up with songs they don’t already know, make a themed playlist that represents important times in your relationship, or that will bring to mind an activity, event or even a trip that you enjoyed together.

5. Offer a Personalized Book Recommendation

Like curating a playlist, recommending a book to someone based on what you think they’d enjoy demonstrates how well you know them and how much you think about them.

Knowing that you’ve pondered what story would make them happy is a gift in itself, but your thoughtful recommendation will also enhance their reading experience by making the book more personal and memorable.

If you happen to own a copy, you can pass it along, but your loved one will likely be glad to make a trip to the library if it means a chance to read the book you suggested with them in mind.

6. Cook Their Favorite Meal or Treat

Good food makes people happy, and enjoying it together is a gift-worthy experience.

Maybe you surprise your family on Christmas morning with a fresh-baked batch of iced cinnamon buns. Think how happy your parent(s) would be if you cooked and served them a candlelight dinner! Maybe you deliver a hot meal or some yummy holiday cookies in a basket to a friend or relative you're not able to hang out with this winter because of pandemic safety considerations.

Most everyone appreciates the delicious results of another person’s culinary efforts. All you need is a kitchen, some ingredients and a few hours.

7. Write a Heartfelt Letter

If you only have a little time to spare, think about writing a letter. Sometimes the simplest communication of love is the greatest gift, and a letter is so personal — the recipient is sure to keep it close, and nostalgically reread it, for years to come.

It’s the epitome of the holidays to express your gratitude and care for the important people in your life. Putting into words why you appreciate and care for someone (use some elegant paper, or a pretty card) is a beautiful gift.

You might not have lots of money or time at your disposal, but there are plenty of ways to give meaningful gifts that don’t require either.  Good luck gifting, and happy holidays!

Laura is a member of the Class of 2022 at Stanford University, where she studies Communication. When she isn’t reading or writing, you can find her experimenting with new vegan recipes, watching football, or expressing herself through art and poetry.

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