Dinner Bell Rings in New Program

What do you miss most about home? Chances are the answer to that question revolves around food (Mom’s cooking) or family. A Vermont college president is taking what students miss most and cooking up a program that actually is helping her school retain its students.

In an article about the Campus Community Dinner Series, Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College, said her school will expand the program this fall with goals to strengthen local residents’ appreciation for the value of family dinners, build the college’s ties to its community and contribute to the varied experiences that can improve college retention by building students’ connections to their campuses.

According to the article, the college draws its student body from the ranks of New England’s academically underprepared and low-income residents – 46 percent of its full-time freshmen in 2009 received federal Pell Grants. It also needs to do all it can to push its retention rate up from 55 percent in 2009-10 and its six-year graduation rate up from 39 percent.

Gross researched her idea by reading The Taste for Civilization, by Santa Clara University’s Janet Flammang, and said she “found wisdom in its view that ‘democracy necessitates that we learn to have conversations about difficult topics over dinner.’ ” She also took information from the Family Dinner Project, a program that over the past decade focuses on the role family dinners can play in encouraging good behaviors such as higher grade point averages and self-esteem and deterring negative ones such as substance abuse, teen pregnancy and eating disorders.

The program pairs local families with students, who have been trained as “conversationalists.” Families are nominated for the program by a local high school and must include one high school-aged student who has college ambitions. They must agree to attend three dinners on campus and cook one meal at home with food provided by the school. They also agree to fill out surveys and provide other data to keep tabs on how the experience changed their behavior. Thanks to program sponsors, student participants received $250 each, and families got a $500 stipend for participating.

Students are trained to guide dinnertime conversations and be liaisons to the families. The program is helping students, local families and the school. Time for dinner sounds like a plan that might work at other schools as well.