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Virtual potlucks support international students during distance learning

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    Sharing a meal:  Dr. Rachel Chung and Dr. Alejandro Gelves decided to host a virtual potluck for their students in both the residential and online Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program.  Screenshot
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Potluck dinners are a staple of the true college experience, particularly for international students. They are a time for friends, colleagues, and professors to come together and share a meal that is reflective of home.

So when the repercussions of the pandemic hit full force in mid-March, including the cancellation of in-person gatherings, Dr. Rachel Chung and Dr. Alejandro Gelves decided to host a virtual potluck for their students in both the residential and online Master of Science in Business Analytics (MSBA) program and bring everyone together in an acceptable, socially-distant way.

“The idea came from my experience as a graduate student. We used to have potlucks where international students would get a chance to share a dish and their culture. This experience teaches tolerance, understanding, and inclusiveness to all who attend,” Gelves explained. “Some of the international students were unable to go quickly to their homes when the pandemic happened. A potluck might help them remember their country and family.”

Gelves who had previously earned his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, graduated from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business’s M.S. in Business Analytics program and transitioned into a Clinical Associate Professor role at the Mason School in the area of Operations and Information Systems Management.

The Bogota, Colombia native was inspired to adapt the in-person potluck into a virtual environment after he saw Chung post photos on social media of a similar event her “foodie” group hosted.

“We hosted it relatively early in the lockdown when the experience was relatively new but was at a point where it was really hitting people that we were probably not going to see each other before graduation,” Chung said. “When we had classes on campus, we would bump into each other a lot and chat. This was a stressful time for both students and faculty as we moved everything online and got situated. I don’t think it had occurred to anyone to host something purely social.”

In respect to the residential MSBA students, the shift to virtual learning amplified the demands of an already rigorous one-year program. And for the international students it meant balancing Zoom meetings with professors and classmates with relocating, preparing for graduation, and finding employment in a challenging job market.

“The hardest thing for me was not being around my classmates. Throughout the year, talking to classmates about projects, assignments, or life in general, made the program much more impactful,” said Christian Denmark, MSBA ’20. “The virtual potluck was a lot of fun. Professor Chung and Professor Gelves brought a little bit of humanity and lightheartedness into the stressful virtual COVID school life we had become accustomed to. Fostering community is always important but especially in times like this where we all feel a little bit more isolated than normal.”

Chung understands the need for community as she was an international student herself. She came to the United States from Taiwan in 1995 as a first-generation study-abroad student on a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. Ultimately, she earned her M.S. in Information Science and a Ph.D. in both Psychology as well as Business Administration/Management Information Systems before launching a successful academic and professional career in business analytics. She says her own experience as an international student is what drives her to support the next generation of international students at the Mason School.

“I remember how confusing and overwhelming it was to manage everything on top of the academics. I never realized all of the things that you learn after becoming an international student. I understand exactly what the students have to struggle with at such a young age,” Chung said. “I had a lot of time to navigate and learn, make mistakes and recover from them. But this program is one year so from the minute they arrive, there’s very little room for error. William & Mary has outstanding support to help them get ready for a new career academically while at the same time navigating the complexities of being an international student.”

One new area of support available through the business school is the International Students subcommittee of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Chung and Gelves began volunteering with the organization shortly before the pandemic hit and saw the opportunity to host a virtual potluck as a way to kick-off the initiative to provide greater support to international business students.

“Alejandro and I felt that the Mason School has a significant group of international students and we would like to make sure they feel supported, socially, and that there’s a community for them,” Chung explained.

Scheduling the potluck for students who were scattered across multiple time zones and several continents required a lot of coordination. Chung pitched the idea to the D&I Committee of hosting a social half-hour potluck followed by the screening of a data science documentary and a discussion afterwards. About a dozen students participated in the event including Griffin Salyer, MSBA ’21 who wasn’t an international student but wanted to connect with his international classmates.

“The potluck event was nice and it allowed me the comfort of casual conversation and interaction with my professors during this time,” Salyer said. “Overall, I’m glad that I attended William & Mary. The experience exposed me to a variety of ideas, connections, and friends.”

Chung and Gelves hope to host future potlucks for the international students both virtually and in-person once it’s safely to do so. They are also looking forward to increasing awareness of the International Students subcommittee, and promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives to support the Mason School’s international student population.

“We were happy people showed up to this first one. Your culture is embedded in your food so it’s a good way to introduce people to your culture,” Chung said. “At a higher level, the ongoing discourse at the national level has created discussions and dialogues, and the D&I Committee is actively discussing how we can support that conversation for our international students.”