John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Take a Student to Lunch (breakfast/supper) and See Who Learns the Most

John N. Gardner
President
The day before I wrote this I had the serendipitous opportunity to ride for four hours in a car with three female undergraduates, who talked incessantly for every minute of the trip and taught me a great deal. At the conclusion of the drive, which was to take me from a distant rural campus to a regional airport, I offered to take my companions to dinner. Oh, I am definitely going to do this thing more often.
What a simple idea: take a student to a meal and just have conversation. I learned so much. I can always learn more. I will never know all I need to know about the student experience.
This experience reminded me of who I am compared to my students, in terms of social class background and how that may limit what I automatically or innately understand about my students. Like most college educators, I am definitely middle class, and more accurately upper middle class. In addition, I am an example of what sociologists call downward social mobility—i.e. my parents were of a higher class in terms of income, social economic status (SES) than I am. My own “class” experiences  makes me have to work harder to understand my students who are—or were—and some of whom may sadly  remain—poor.
I listened over dinner to the life stories of these three courageous young women, all of whom were from working class families in rural Maine. All of them had parents who were dealing with chronic unemployment, or under-employment, the fluctuations of seasonal employment, the impact of severe health problems, loosing property to foreclosure, changes in the local economy due to word-wide factors over which they had no control, the consequences of taking on debt through wanton credit card use, struggling to hold on to a first home in which they are under water, and more. These students are truly struggling to make ends meet to stay in college. They are the front line casualties of the Great Recession. But their courage, their learned optimism, their high aspirations, their desire to experience a different quality of life than their parents keeps them focused.
I couldn’t help but asking: could I have coped with what they cope with?
What do you know about what’s going on in your students’ lives? Why don’t you ask them to lunch and find out? One of the universal, cross cultural behaviors we all can engage in  that shows others they matter to us, is our willingness to sit down with them and partake of food, and other forms of concomitant nourishment.
This recalls for me an experiment we conducted back in the 90’s when I was still full-time at the University of South Carolina. We had a so-called “Brainstorming” group of innovative faculty, staff, and academic administrators, who met regularly to create new initiatives to improve undergraduate education. One idea we came up with was the desirability of increasing faculty/student interaction over meals. So we launched a program to recruit faculty who would be willing to have one meal a week, 16 weeks per term, with the University providing the meals. The cynics and skeptics said “no way the faculty are ever going to do that”. But we realized that the key was who made the ask. And we also realized that if we didn’t ask, we would create a self fulfilling prophecy and not have faculty eating with students. And, we reminded ourselves that most people love to be asked—even if they decide to decline. So we had a most distinguished senior faculty member, one who had been recognized for both teaching and scholarly excellence (Professor Don Greiner) make the ask. And we were flooded with volunteers.  Your campus could do it too.

At the very least you could go it alone. You are privileged. You have a full-time stead job in higher education, with benefits. You can take a student to lunch. I hope you will. The learning will be on you

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