You grab your boxed dinner from North Dining Hall and tote it back to the dorm. You forgot to bring a bag again so your bare fingers are stiff and numb around the container by the time you enter your room. You shut the door behind you and go to your desk where you’ll sit facing a wall, eating another meal alone. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You could jump onto a Zoom call instead to share stimulating conversation and make new friends — all from the comfort of your own room.
The opportunity for connection was largely on the minds of both Jocie Antonelli and Katrina Conrad. Conrad serves as the assistant director for student well-being in McWell and Antonelli is the program director for nutrition services. They came together to create an opportunity for students to break bread in the company of others during these challenging times. The partnership between McWell and Campus Dining makes sense. In the words of Antonelli, both McWell and Campus dining have the “same goals of providing opportunities for our students to improve their physical and mental health.”
Student participant, Connor Patrick, had a number of positive things to say about his experience. Patrick attended Zoom dinners on both Tuesday and Thursday and plans on attending the third and fourth meals that will close out the program. Serving on the student services advisory committee, Patrick values staying in the know about the events and opportunities McWell provides. He spoke about his desire to use his time here at Notre Dame to the fullest, which to him means engaging in many of the activities offered by university services.
Conrad says that the well-being surveys conducted by the McDonald Center displayed the importance for social connectedness within the student body. As shared spaces and shared activities look very different than they used to, it remains vitally important to find means of connection. “I hope that these dinners spark new connections and friendships among the students who are participating and that it encourages them to continue to seek new opportunities to build connections, even if they are virtual,” Conrad said.
With a great awareness of the ways in which students are feeling challenged and isolated during this pandemic, Patrick shared a desire to amplify opportunities like these. “Everyone knows that McWell exists but there’s some sort of disconnect between McWell and the events they’re hosting and the students,” Patrick said.
There is tremendous work being done to create the space for connection and the ability to decrease the loneliness students feel. For so many, meals are the moments to take a pause and reflect on the day with others. Conrad hopes these Zoom dinners “encourage students to slow down at the end of a busy day and take the time to enjoy a meal in the company of others.”
The intertwining of food and socialization cannot be overlooked. Antonelli notes the way in which food is a central framework to our lives; it shapes our memories, it’s there in good times and bad. That’s why it’s important to share meals with others. Antonelli said that “while we break bread with others, we connect and share in each other's journeys. The sharing and sense of connection and belonging is food for our souls.”
When asked what it was that made him sign up for this experience, Patrick spoke to a general desire to immerse himself in the opportunities around him, but also to a deeper need to connect. Safety and health are obviously a top priority, still, abiding by the limitations we currently live under is often a frustrating experience.
There is greater hope moving forward. “When things are safer, we can do this again in person,” Patrick said. He acknowledged that Zoom may not be an ideal platform, but that it’s better than eating another meal alone. The connections being forged over these dinners are building bridges to relationships that will hopefully extend into the future, when we can sit packed around a table, bumping elbows with friends and breaking bread together.