UT needs to encourage student interactions in dining halls

Natalie Taylor

You look up from your plate and scan the room. Sitting across from you, someone else is doing the exact same thing, and you make eye contact for just a second. This unbearably awkward second seems to last forever. They immediately divert their attention to their phone, their music — anything that takes them away from this uncomfortable situation. You do the same. 

Every single day, we are forced to decide between building walls between us and the rest of the world and coming out of our shells to make an effort to connect with those around us, the latter being considerably more difficult. When we feel insecure, our phones give us something to fall back on. But why should we need this at mealtimes, which are opportunities to bond with others, share experiences and create a sense of community? 

“I pull out my phone because it gets kind of uncomfortable to just be sitting there and not be doing anything, and you just end up looking around a lot,” costume design freshman Ivey Shoemaker said.

The dining halls mostly serve freshman, who are especially looking to make friends in a new environment. Dining director Rene Rodriguez said students aren’t used to sitting at a table and eating anymore, so starting conversations is harder because students now communicate entirely through their phones. 

Today, in the age of modern technology, we often simply don’t know how to have meaningful interactions, but this doesn’t mean we don’t want to. 

“Honestly, if someone just came up to me and started talking to me, I would take it as such a compliment,” Shoemaker said. “I think that would be such a great thing.” 

The truth is that genuine connections with others give us the sense of belonging that we all crave. We just don’t know where to begin. UT tries its best to make the 50,000-plus student body feel more connected. However, the dining halls, which are where friendship-seeking freshman spend much of their time, are severely lacking in this type of facilitated interaction. 

To encourage students to speak to one another, dining halls should provide conversation starters on each table. This would better allow students to interact better without feeling pressured to come up with something to say. 

“Maybe if there are questions right there, students won’t feel as intimidated to speak to one another,” said Rodriguez, who plans to gather a committee of students to implement this change in the coming year. “We can make a panel on one side of the table tents that has interesting questions to ask the person next to you.”

At first, this type of facilitation may seem ingenuine, but the goal is to encourage students to come out of their shells by making conversations as inviting as possible. Later, it can evolve into something more personal. Just like student organizations start out with a clear structure to encourage students to get to know each other, dining halls could do the same. Before long, students will engage in genuine conversations. 

We use our phones so much because everyone does, we close ourselves off from the rest of the world because everyone does, and we let our fear get the better of us because everyone does. If everyone started talking to those around them in the dining hall, we would too. We just need a little encouragement.

Taylor is a Spanish freshman from Seattle.