Don’t talk to strangers, the childhood dictum goes. U of T students, however, aren’t just talking to strangers now – they’re sitting down to dinner with them.
Over the past few months, the department of alumni affairs in the division of university advancement has been organizing “Dinner with 12 Strangers” – a program that brings together U of T students, alumni and professors for informal dinner parties. The concept is based on a tradition from UCLA, which threw the first such dinner in 1968. The idea then, as now, was to make a large campus smaller for new students by fostering friendships. Dinners will take place throughout the school year, and will eventually involve most colleges and faculties.
On this particular March evening, 10 people sit around the table in the candlelit dining room of Harvey Botting (BA 1967, MBA 1985), a U of T Alumni Association board member and a former senior vice-president with Rogers Media. Professor Margot Mackay (Dip AAMed 1966, BSc 1967) of medicine is the faculty guest, and cookbook author Bonnie Stern (BA 1969) is pouring the (non-alcoholic) sangria when the students arrive.
The conversation is hesitant at first, as the students figure out each others’ majors, years of study and colleges. But over the shaved fennel and orange salad, the conversation loosens up as the talk turns to the current state of Chinese cinema (several of the guests are international students from China), where to get the best ice cream and the vagaries of hunting for a summer job. By the time the remnants of the tiramisu sit before each guest, the chatter flows freely.
It’s Stern who sums up the evening as everyone sips their tea and coffee and the candles burn low. The group has been discussing restaurants again – with one of the country’s foremost cooking pros at the table, it’s a popular topic – and the best places in the city to sample Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Hungarian and Mexican cooking. “Toronto’s really changed from when we were at university,” she says. “The whole food culture has developed tremendously. Now you can get any food in the world here.” The diversity of the city, like the university, has blossomed – and this evening, with its globe-trotting conversation and easy rapport, is one more reminder of that.
Soon enough, the cabs arrive to take the students back to campus, and amid a chaos of coats and backpacks, e-mail addresses are hastily scribbled and exchanged. Ambling down the front walk, the students call goodbyes and thanks to their host, and pile into the waiting taxis, strangers no more. Alumni interested in hosting a “Dinner with 12 Strangers” can call (416) 946- 8371, or visit www.alumni.utoronto.ca/stayconnected/volunteer_dinner.html.