Karen Gross is far from alone in worrying about her college's success in retaining students. But the president of Southern Vermont College is slightly unusual in looking for answers in the dining hall.
This fall, the college will expand a program that last spring brought local families to the Bennington, Vt., campus for a series of dinners with Southern Vermont students who had been trained as "conversationalists."
The Campus Community Dinner Series  has no meager ambitions: it aims to strengthen local residents' appreciation for the value of family dinners (which, done right, have been shown to help students succeed in school and stay out of trouble); 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.
Early research from the project is encouraging enough that the college and Sodexo, its food service provider (and, in this case, grant maker), are increasing its size at Southern Vermont, and Sodexo is taking it to another, as-yet-unidentified campus as well.
And Gross is beginning to look for ways to inject some of the program's elements -- especially the notion that engaging in "quality conversations" about difficult subjects sharpens students' academic abilities and binds them to one another -- into the everyday goings-on of the dining hall.
"We spend a lot of time thinking about retention, but I'm not sure we've investigated the ways we can use the dining hall for that purpose, other than by providing better or worse food," says Gross. "Until now, that is."
Like many colleges, Southern Vermont has plenty of work to do in retaining students. With a student body drawn disproportionately 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 -- the college needs to use all tools at its disposal to push its freshman-to-sophomore-year retention rate up from 2009-10's 55 percent and its six-year graduation rate (for students who entered in 2004) up from 39 percent.
A combination of factors got Gross thinking outside the box (and inside the cafeteria). She read the research on family dinners  that emerged over the last decade, most of which focused on the role that regular family meals can play in encouraging good behaviors (higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem) and deterring negative ones (substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders) among young people. She read The Taste for Civilization, by Santa Clara University's Janet Flammang,  and found wisdom in its view that “democracy necessitates that we learn to have conversations about difficult topics over dinner,” Gross says.
And the president watched as students poured into and out of Southern Vermont’s dining halls each day, and wondered if the college was missing an opportunity to “turn the eating experience for our students into something more,” not just for them but also for some of the college’s other constituents, notably families in the area.
What emerged was the Campus Community Dinner Series. In it, 10 Southern Vermont students  -- chosen from among 45 nominated by faculty and staff members – received training from members of the Family Dinner Project as “dinner conversationalists” charged with guiding the dinnertime discussions and being the liaisons to the families.
A total of 11 local residents from four families – nominated by the local Mount Anthony Union High School, and each including at least one high school-aged student who had ambitions to attend college – agreed to attend three dinners on the campus, cook one dinner at home with food (frozen chicken breasts, potatoes and salad greens with mozzarella cheese and tomatoes) provided by the college, and fill out surveys and provide other data to keep tabs on how the experience changed their behavior. The student participants from Southern Vermont received $250 each, and each family received a $500 stipend.
Amanda Glick, who is starting her sophomore year at Southern Vermont this fall, says she was drawn to participate in the program because of the role family dinners played as she grew up in small-town Goshen, N.Y. “In our house, if you weren’t home for dinner, you were in big trouble,” Glick says. “We’d go around and talk about how our days were, and if you were having trouble with something, you got help, and you learned to listen to other people. I think it makes you a little more considerate.”
The staff of the Family Dinner Project worked with Glick and the other students to identify what worked (and didn’t) to make their own family dinners memorable and comfortable – the food on the table, the topics discussed, the behavior of both parents and kids, etc. “The goal was to get them thinking about what to try to promote, and what to prevent,” says Bob Stains, senior vice president at the Public Conversations Project,  who was among the trainers.
The students expressed natural nervousness about the “what ifs” – “all the things that can go wrong,” Stains says, from families that wouldn’t talk to those that might combust into arguments that needed defusing. The project armed them with tools and some simple rules, Stains says: ask open-ended questions to draw out participants, for example, and share from your own experiences – enough to prime the pump, but not so much that you become the center of attention.
“We wanted to help students try to create a structured environment where there’s a sense of order,” says Stains.
It wasn’t always easy, say Glick and the other students. Some family members were more effusive than others, and some families had stubborn customs – such as leaving all the cooking and cleaning to Mom – that produced friction. But Glick says she bonded with the daughter in the family under her charge, a then-sophomore who, like herself at that age, “wants to be a nurse, is kind of an average student, and was stressing about the SATs,” says Glick. ”I think it was nice for her to hear from someone who made it into college – especially since I was an average student who didn’t really push myself, so I was in the same boat as her.”
Glick’s goal for herself entering the program was to develop healthier eating habits – “I grew up Italian, so it was carbs all the time” – and she collaborated with Terri, the mother in her “family dinner” family, on cooking different kinds of meals. “It was about being each other’s support system,” she says. And when she was home from college this summer, Glick says, she made a meal for her family built around a fish recipe from Terri.
With only 21 participants, 10 students and 11 family members, the family dinner series didn’t produce quite enough data to satisfy hardcore social scientists, admits Gross, Southern Vermont’s president. But she is heartened by the results nonetheless: most family members said they had increased the number of family dinners they shared, the variety of food, and the amount of time they spent talking about future goals after participating in the project.
More than half of the students said they had increased their connections to the college and the community, and half said it had increased their awareness of the dining hall’s nutritional options. And five of the six first-year students who participated in the series are returning to Southern Vermont for their sophomore year – a proportion higher than the college’s average. (Yes, the college might have retained them otherwise, Gross concedes.)
Such outcomes please Tom Post, president of campus services at Sodexo, which has agreed not only to extend what he called its “very unusual” grant to Southern Vermont but to expand the series to another campus, which it will announce next week. The dinner series has some ancillary benefits for the company – Sodexo employees who work with Southern Vermont get training in areas they wouldn’t otherwise, and then, of course, there is publicity in articles like this one.
But Sodexo is thinking long-term about higher education’s viability, too. “Listen, we’re attached to them, so their success is our success,” Post says of Southern Vermont and colleges like it. “If we can help people find a way to retain more students, graduate more students, and have them be healthier graduates, that’s good for them and for us.”
Even as the Campus Community Dinner Series expands to 7 families and 14 students (from 4 and 10, respectively) this year, it will still be touching only a fraction of Southern Vermont’s students. But the ideas embedded in the project have the potential to spread beyond the confines of the program itself, says Gross. If Janet Flammang is right that “getting diplomats around a dinner table is a good way of generating good will in advance of difficult discussions,” should the college train more of its students to be “conversationalists”?
That would cost a little more, but “if it turns out that learning to have quality conversations is a really helpful skill set…, we could have more faculty and staff eat with our students,” she says. The college placed cards on the family dinner tables with conversation-starting topics; “why wouldn’t we put them on all our tables anyway? Or why couldn’t we create certain tables in the dining hall that would be known to have conversations about certain subjects?”
“This just has us thinking a bit more robustly about whether we can take a little better advantage,” Gross says, “of the many things that we can do, that are low or no cost, to help our community and our students -- not just while they’re with us, but longer term.”