Jenni and Kasey here.
We're at the International Student Welcome Reception that the University YMCA hosts at the beginning of each semester, co-sponsored by International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS). This year, we ran out of cookies and hummus so fast we had to go on a grocery store run before we were even an hour into the party...
Barely needing to answer any questions, we watch as new international students begin to have conversations. They seem eager to chat with each other, and we enjoy listening as they share their excitement over starting a new semester, exchanging stories and information.
At UIUC, other universities, and in nonprofit organizations around the country, the same conversations happen again and again, and the same questions are raised about inclusion and diversity. How do we encourage "diversity"? How do we start conversations between different cultural groups? How do we get people talking, sharing, exchanging, and experiencing together?
The answer seems to be: Have a party. Do it when people are open and ready to meet each other. Put out the food. And get out of the way.
This welcome reception has become something less directly about introducing students to what the Y is, although it accomplishes that through what the welcome receptions have in common with the Y and its mission - to serve as a gathering place where people of different views and backgrounds can feel comfortable conversing about important matters (or just the happenings of the day).
The punch bowls are filled again and again. At least 200 students have come through just in the first hour. The chatter rises and flows over the uplifting guitar and harmonies of the Hathaways. It's a relaxed, relieving gathering for international students to unwind and get to know each other - casually, without interruption.