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Given that I began work with a new institution this summer, I was invited to attend a reception and dinner with my wife for newfaculty members by the university Honor Society. Although I am not much of a mingler (in fact, the very thought of being forced to make small talk in a crowded room with strangers is something that makes me sick), I RSVPed with the intention of pushing myself to become part of the university community.

Due to some late work at my office, Kimberly and I had to skip the reception at the President’s House. Instead, we arrived at the ballroom for dinner, just as a few other new faculty members were milling about. For a moment I thought that perhaps we had th wrong day: the ballroom was mostly bare with several tables and chairs set up, but no table cloths, no dishes, and certainly no food. There were no people in the room and I began to wonder whether we had mistook the day. We glanced at a printed schedule next to the ballroom door, and sure enough the NEW FACULTY DINNER was listed as the night’s event. We found a comfortable couch and discarded campus newspaper and sat back to watch events unfold.

Before long, several more men and women (in their late 20s and early 30s) began to gather around the ballroom doors. Like us, they were clearly not students, given their apparent age and their formal dress. They looked as doubtful as us, but clearly releived that they were not the only ones confused by the emptiness of the ballroom. Eventually a young man (presumably a graduate student) encouraged the crowd to enter the ballroom and sit down as the organizers scrambled to figure out where the caterer was. For whatever reason, the crowd seemed unwilling to enter the ballroom, but Kimberly and I went ahead and walked across the floor and gazed out the windows across campus and towards the mountains. We kidded each other, “Someone clearly messed up with the caterer. They’ll probably send us to eat in the school cafeteria.” It seemed only a joke. Turns out, it was not.

After several more minutes, the viscous crowd congregated from outside the ballroom doors to a collective just inside the ballroom (I will never understand mob mentality). A spokeswoman for the Honor Society (brave woman to face this situation), got to the microphone and asked us all to sit down. She explained that the caterer was not coming and that there had been a mistake in scheduling. Instead, we would still haveĀ  speaker present the Honor Scoeity, but then we would head over to the campus dining hall (aka cafeteria) for dinner. Gasps. Looks of horror and betrayal. And a small group that had just sat down, got back up and scurried out of the ballroom.

We decided to stay, mostly because we were curious how this would all play out. And in truth, everyone was a good sport (aside from the small group that ditched in the previous paragraph). The speaker got up to speak (Kimberly whispered to me, “Surely she has enough sense to cut it short, given the circumstances.”), and then Brave Woman invited us to troop over to the dining hall. I expected more desertions, and there were, but not as many as I anticipated. Kimberly and I spent a few more minutes in the ballroom “mingling” with some education grad students (see, I can do it, even if it makes my skin crawl), and then joined the crowd heading towards the cafeteria.

Kimberly looked doubtful (she lived in dorms as a freshman and sophmore), but I said, “This is our chance to experience what life is like for students here. Think Diane Fossey and the gorillas. Enthographic research. Christian empathy.” Truthfully, I teach graduate students who don’t really use campus dining services, but there were a handful of undergrads in my summer session course, and I’d heard them talk about the cafeteria. Here was my chance to experience it for myself. Kimberly still looked doubtful, but she is a good sport and walked with me as I followed the crowd.

And such was our night: blueberry pie, coconut cream, salisbury steak (which, as it turns out, is really just a hamburger patty), and buffet lines. The students craned their necks as they tried to figure out why all these men and women in suits and dresses were invading *their* cafeteria. But they soon lost interest and went back to their soda, their texting, and their picking nits out of each other’s fur.

Afterwards, Kimberly and I headed over to the undegraduate library and perused the DVD collection, picked up a couple flicks with my ID card, and then walked back out into the rain to catch the bus back to our apartment. As we stood under our umbrella in the dark rain, we decided, “We just experience a first date for among first-year students: we topped by the bookstore, we ate in the cafeteria, we hung out in the library, and now we are waiting for the bus to go home. All that and we haven’t spend a dollar.” Diane Fossey would be proud. We experienced their life.

And a great reminder for all educators, to experience life from the perspective of our students. After my second year of teaching ESL, I decided I needed to experience life from the perspective of my students. Although I had lived overseas several times, I wanted to know what it would be like to live in an apartment with roommates who all spoke a foreign language to me. So, I enrolled in the university’s Portuguese House. I did not know Portuguese (and still don’t much), and I’m not sure how they approved me to move in, but it was a valuable experience in gaining a small understanding of the shock, frustration, and lonliness that ESL students can experience when they come to the USA. By experience life as my students do, I woudl like to think that I am better able to meet their needs and provide a learning environment that respects who they are. Even if it means eating in the campus dining hall.

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