For five years, Cranwell International Center has collaborated with Dining Services to highlight the cultural diversity of Virginia Tech’s campus through International Café Hours. The program, offered six times a year, gives Virginia Tech students the opportunity to explore the world without leaving campus by providing a venue for affiliated student organizations to showcase what is unique and meaningful about the countries and cultures they represent.

This semester the program will operate differently. Students will need to register in advance for one of four half-hour time slots. At Deet’s Place, there will be cultural displays provided by the featured student organization for that month. Dining Services will provide a carry-out food sample, and students can log on to the Mozilla Hubs platform to engage with other students in an interactive space that permits users to view videos, navigate through a virtual building, and chat with other users. The idea to implement this new platform came from Kristy Collins, director of education outreach at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, one of the collaborators for the annual International Street Fair.

For fall 2020, the featured student organizations and countries are:

  • Sept. 18, 2020, 4-6 p.m. – The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Virginia Tech presents China – sign up
  • Oct. 16, 2020, 4-6 p.m. – Friends of Israel at Virginia Tech presents Israel
  • Nov. 6, 2020, 4-6 p.m. – The Iranian Student Society at Virginia Tech presents Iran

Since the program began in 2017, student organizations representing more than twenty countries have participated in the International Café Hours. Sometimes these café hours focus on one specific country and other times they focus on a region, depending on the student organization that is helping to plan the event. Chinese calligraphy, Albanian line dancing, and quiz games are just a few examples of the ways students have chosen to engage with attendees and initiate cross-cultural discussions at past events. 

The genesis of the International Café Hours was a discussion about a tea tasting in 2016. Dining Services at Virginia Tech is one of the largest purveyors of tea in the state. Leann Cook, operations manager for Deet’s Place in Dining Services, reached out to Fawna Zwart, assistant director for campus and community engagement in the Cranwell International Center, to find a way to make an upcoming tasting more interactive and educational.

“We hit it off immediately, talking for almost two hours. We realized that involving students would make it a much more fun and interesting event,” said Zwart. The first collaborative International Café Hour featured cuisine from China. The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Virginia Tech arranged for a troupe of lion dancers to perform at the event. 

The International Café Hours demonstrate the power of interdepartmental collaborations to create valuable learning experiences for students. They are an important opportunity for international students to share their love for their home countries. At the same time, they provide domestic students with a chance to learn about the values and cultural heritages of other nations. These celebrations of culture and global diversity would simply be less effective if they were planned by Dining Services or Cranwell International Center alone. By combining the expertise of their staff members and involving students, these organizations are able to generate higher quality programming for the students at Virginia Tech.

The student organizations provide two savory and two sweet recipes that are representative of their country or culture, as well as a drink recipe. Sous Chef Jeff Gray then reviews the recipes and chooses the ones that can best be prepared by the Dining Services team. There is one cultural cuisine for which he has a special appreciation. “I have been cooking German food for quite some time as it rings through my family dinners growing up,” notes Gray, but he enjoys experimenting with ingredients and spices that are less familiar to him. One of the most popular dishes of the past semester was Colombian sancocho, a stew composed of chicken thighs on the bone, yucca, yellow potatoes, plantain, and corn.  

Finding uncommon ingredients can be one of the biggest challenges in putting together an International Café Hour. For the café hour exploring Lebanese culture, Jallab syrup was the most difficult ingredient to acquire. This grape molasses mixed with rose water and dates is diluted with water and served over ice. It is topped with pine nuts and golden raisins as a refreshing treat for a hot summer afternoon. 

Written by J. Scott Parker