March 30-April 5, 2001
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Breaking bread brings faculty and students together

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Breaking bread brings faculty and students together

Patrick Gantz
Students working with the First Year Resource Center have organized an ongoing series of dinners with faculty guests to help first-year students feel more comfortable communicating with their professors.

By Jessica Tyree

Talking about things over a good meal is a time-honored way of dealing with many different situations. On Grounds, it's proving to help first-year students break the ice with faculty. At a University founded on the vision of a tightly knit Academical Village, where the community has grown much larger than Jefferson's original Intent, first-year students may feel intimidated.

In response to student requests for help in approaching professors, the First Year Resource Center started the Student-Faculty Dinner Series in the spring of 1998, with support from the Office of African-American Affairs, the Women's Center, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Center for Alcohol and Substance Education.

Three times each fall and spring semester, three or four professors and about 25 first-years sit down to dinner at the Observatory Hill Dining Hall Community Room. Podiums and uncomfortable desk chairs are exchanged for an elegant setting complete with tablecloths and candles.

In spite of professors' sincere requests for office-hour visits or after-class chats, students still may be nervous about taking them up on the offer.

"Professors are saying 'Come to my office, please!' but it never crosses your mind that they want to get to know you," said Megan Moynihan, a fourth-year government major, who coordinates dinners with fellow undergraduate volunteers Caroline Altman, Stephanie Mayer and Reighan Gillam.

For each dinner, organizers brainstorm faculty names and then send invitations to those professors. Several groups help in soliciting students — resident advisers, USEM professors and Women's Center staff, as well as First Year Resource Center student volunteers. Both faculty and student interest in the program have been strong, Moynihan said, noting she cannot recall having had to search for willing guests.

This semester, the student organizers changed the original format to cater to students' specific academic and career interests. In February, faculty and upperclass students from a particular school were invited to dine with students interested in that field. The Commerce and Medical schools were the first to be featured, with a College of Arts & Sciences dinner scheduled for April.

The objective is to bring the two groups together in an environment that is "informal and more friendly than the classroom," she said. Students and professors have a chance to mingle as everyone is arriving. They are then seated at tables, usually with one professor and six to 10 students. After the meal, faculty members take questions from the larger group.

"What's great about the dinner series is that it gives the professors the opportunity to share with students some things that are going on in their personal lives, and the first-years are able to get to know them on a different level than in the classroom," said Moynihan.

For instance, when assistant nursing professor Reba Childress attended a dinner last semester, she told the students about a hike she was going to participate in to raise money for AIDS, and some students signed up to walk with her.

"It exposed the first-years to opportunities in Charlottesville that they weren't aware of, and hopefully continued the personal interaction of the dinner at another event," Moynihan added.

Feedback from faculty members shows they appreciated the opportunity to interact with students.

"The opportunity to talk with a small group of first-years over dinner was a refreshing change from our usual hectic pace of life," said Susan Burns, an assistant professor of civil engineering.

"I thought the seating arrangement at dinner created an excellent conversational group," said Ellen Whitener, senior associate dean in the McIntire School of Commerce. "I answered their questions, not just about the Commerce School, but about opportunities to go abroad and ways to make the most of their university experience and education."

"The main thing I got out of the experience was the opportunity to listen to what first-year students are thinking about. The dinners certainly helped [me] understand some of the issues they face," said James Galloway, professor in the environmental sciences department.

Students, too, have gotten more out of the gatherings than they could have anticipated. First-year student Jennifer Kim attended the Medical School dinner and found herself surrounded not only by professors and students, but also by practicing physicians and medical school admissions faculty.

"That was an added bonus," she said. "I got some very good hints that I wouldn't have thought of easily on my own, especially since I had no real idea what I could be doing at this stage besides taking classes and volunteering."

Funding for the dinner series comes mainly from the FYRC, which receives money from the Provost Office, the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs and the Women's Center. The program recently received a boost with added support from the College of Arts & Sciences.

Planners hope that, having shared the common experience of a meal, students will feel more comfortable seeking out professors and that U.Va.'s intellectual community will be strengthened in the process.


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