A new way for international students to have a MEAL

Christine Gallagher Kearney
March 01, 2014

Coming to a new country to study can be overwhelming. Not only are DePaul's many international students adjusting to a new time zone, culture and language, they also are eager to make connections with Americans. International Programs is working to improve those students' experiences with the new MEAL with DePaul program, and they want your help.

The MEAL program, which stands for "Meet, Eat and American Life," piloted in November and fully launched in January. The program offers students the opportunity to connect with DePaul faculty and staff over a meal shared in the host's home.

"This program grew out of many conversations about improving the orientation and welcome experience for our international students. The feedback made it clear that international students really want to get to know Americans," said Jennifer von Drehle, associate director for International Programs.

Feng Xu, a Master of Science in Accountancy graduate student from China who participated in the pilot program, got to try homemade lasagna. "It was delicious," she said. Staff and faculty are encouraged to keep it simple and have fun-a home-cooked meal or take out are both good options.

"It doesn't have to be a fancy gourmet dinner. The goal is to expose international students to one example of what American home life is like. Students want the experience and the chance to get to know you," von Drehle said.

"I changed my idea about American food and culture. I thought American food was fast-food style, but now I see a lot of home style. I think American homemade food is more delicious than fast food," Xu said. She highly recommended the experience because it provides a culturally enriching opportunity to have a conversation beyond the classroom.

"It's easy for international students to get to know other international students, but they want to get to know other Americans. Outside their academic goals, this is their number one hope for their time here, and they have a difficult time connecting with American students. American students at DePaul are extremely busy," von Drehle said.

Students apply to participate, while faculty and staff apply to host. International Programs screens the applications, matches and connects the participants and hosts.

To date, the feedback from students and the DePaul hosts has been positive. There are still students on the waiting list that von Drehle hopes to match with hosts. "We had 100 students apply in the fall and we were able to serve 65," she said. Overall, International Programs is very pleased with the results and hopes the program will grow as more students, faculty and staff learn about the opportunity.

Beyond the homemade meal, international students are making new connections and becoming more comfortable living in America.

"My host makes me feel more confident about making friends with American people. I have more confidence because they can understand me and I can tell them a lot about China," Xu said.

Xu recently turned the tables on the MEAL program by hosting her host. Coordinators anticipated a mostly one-time experience for students and hosts, but Xu and her fellow Chinese accounting students made dinner for their DePaul staff host, Mallory Warner, an academic advisor for international studies. "Just last week we had a meal together. I brought homemade Chinese food and we played a Chinese game called Mahjong."

Dates for the Spring Quarter MEAL program will be announced in March.