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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Meals with Heels unites students, faculty

First-year student Austin Helms, left and English lecturer Courtney Rivard chat over lunch in Lenior Dining Hall.

When it comes to advice for a new Carolina student, getting to know the faculty ranks right up there with taking a sip from the Old Well on the first day of class.

“From the time they step foot on this campus, they hear they need to get to know their professors. But there can be an intimidation factor,” said Annice Fisher, assistant director for academic collaboration and assessment in the Department of Housing and Residential Education (DHRE).

Since faculty members’ office hours can be packed with students seeking help, students who want to build a relationship with a professor aren’t always sure where to start.

A class taught by Fisher in the School of Education, Education 318: Peer Leadership in the University Environment, set out to change that.

The class charges students with identifying a problem on campus and finding a way to fix it. They must back up their proposals with real research, and the class votes on the most feasible project.

In fall 2010, the class addressed faculty-student relationships, and Meals with Heels, a student-driven project to pair students and professors over a shared meal, was born. The class project leader, Irene Neequaye, worked with Fisher during summer 2011 to turn the project into a University program.

“The class felt the need for students and faculty to become more involved outside the classroom. You’re much more likely to be relaxed over a meal or a cup of coffee,” Fisher said.

Through Meals with Heels, students can check out a meal card to treat faculty to breakfast or lunch at an on-campus dining location. They can also find advice about relationship building and guidelines for good conversation.

“Students sometimes struggle with having conversations with those in authority, and we’re all going to be supervised at some point,” said Fisher. “This program helps them break through that fear.”

Each project proposed in Education 318 is required to partner with a University office. Meals with Heels partnered with DHRE, which decided to absorb the project into its regular budget.

“Lunch is just a launch pad, a gateway to a real relationship,” Fisher said. “This gives faculty the opportunity to learn more about the students in their classes and possibly become a mentor to them.”

Creating conversations

When writing instructor Courtney Rivard arrived at Carolina this fall fresh from a Ph.D. program, she knew very little of the campus culture, traditions or student life.

“I thought Meals with Heels could be a way for new faculty to become integrated into a new place,” Rivard said. She shared the information about the program with her English class to see if any of the students would take her up on it.

One of Rivard’s students, Austin Helms, was new to the area, too. A first-year student from Valdese, he is one of only three students from his high school to attend Carolina this year and the first in his family to attend a four-year college away from home.

“I’m from a small town, and I’m pretty used to knowing all my teachers. Usually, I’m close enough to be able to joke around with them,” Helms said.

But Carolina is a big place, and he was eager to find the kinds of connections he had back home. In September, Helms submitted a request to Meals with Heels to meet with Rivard.

They met at Lenoir Dining Hall, and over lunch Helms revealed that he had been writing a book of advice about how to survive college.

“She suggested I start a blog so that I could let people see what I’m writing now and begin receiving their feedback,” he said.

The topic had struck a chord with Rivard, who teaches writing and has a personal interest in it.

“In the classroom, you really need to stick to your lesson plans,” she said, “and this program is a great way to get a better understanding of the students you’re teaching. Opportunities like this create conversation. And conversations are one of the best ways to learn.”

A professor who is willing to carve out time to meet you for lunch must care, Helms said.

“Teachers see all kinds of students. If you have a problem, they’ve probably seen it,” he said. “It’s nice to have a relationship with an adult you can trust when your parents are two-and-a-half hours away.”

Valuing connections

Such relationships also lead to academic success, Fisher (pictured at right) said.

“Retention theory tells us that students who connect to faculty and their university environment are more likely to be retained,” she said.

Last year, Meals with Heels was used 25 times. In the first few months of the fall 2012 semester, the program had already been used 30 times.

“Faculty are a support system that can guide you through the college experience and help you learn how to navigate a university system,” Fisher said. “Students who make a connection with professors see their ability to persist through hard times strengthened.”

Fisher has taught Education 318 since coming to Carolina in 2008. Since then, her classes have turned a vision for change into concrete solutions, addressing how food allergies are treated in campus dining facilities, using peer groups to help students develop financial literacy and developing a handbook of comprehensive resources for international students.

Watching Meals with Heels transition from a classroom project to a sustainable, purposeful program has shown her the kind of innovative, motivated student body Carolina produces.

“When you ask students how to make Carolina a better place, and then you see them conduct real research and meet with stakeholders to come up with a solution, it makes you wonder why we don’t ask their ideas more often,” she said.