Dinner with 16 Longhorns connects students through food and good conversation

Kiernan McCormick, Life and Arts Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 22, 2022 flipbook.

A unique opportunity for Austin Viktorin to engage with fellow UT students came from an unlikely source: his mom via Facebook Messenger. 

After seeing a post about Dinner with 16 Longhorns, a joint program organized by the Division of Student Affairs office and the Office of the University Ombuds, Viktorin’s mom encouraged him to apply. Intrigued by this chance, he did just that.

I tend to be a solitary person,” business freshman Viktorin said. “I decided I’d go outside of my bubble, meet people, go out and try something.”

According to the Vice President for Student Affairs’ website, the Dinner with 16 Longhorns occurs annually and aims to “bring 16 students from across campus together to create a space for genuine dialogue over dinner.” The program began in the fall of 2018 and picked back up in the fall of 2021, after a two-year pause due to COVID-19. In addition to the fall dinner in October, the 2021-22 school year consisted of two dinners in March and one in April. During the event, students bond over food and unlikely connections.

Heather Miller, the director of development for the Vice President of Student Affairs’ office, said the office uses a series of questions inspired by The New York Times article “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love” to guide the conversation between students during dinners, allowing them to  to engage with one another on a deeper level and foster meaningful discussions. 

“(The program) is (about) getting to know somebody and sitting across from your next best friend,” Miller said. “We’re humans. We are all drawn (to) that connectedness. This dinner brings that and makes us accessible to any of our students.”

Students are randomly selected from an applicant pool, and students who aren’t chosen get automatically placed in the applicant group for the next dinner. Moving forward, Miller said there will be six dinners each academic year — three per semester — and an additional two in the summer. 

As the group got to know each other personally throughout the evening, Vitkorin said he felt comfortable confiding in his fellow students at the dinner.

“You get to make friends, and at the end of the day, they’re there to listen, or you’re there to share,” Vitkorin said. “We had moments when we were laughing, crying (and) sharing simple stories (and) long, grandiose ones.”

UT Family Leadership Council members host these dinners and volunteer to hold the event in their homes. Kristin and Tony Schell, the Leadership Council’s chairs, hosted dinners in spring of 2019, October of 2021 and March of 2022. UT alumnus Bill Frisbee welcomed students in his home for the March 22 and April 20 events.

Kristin Schell said the dinners provide students with a form of human contact that is beneficial to their mental health, especially after experiencing isolation as a result of the pandemic. 

“They are providing a safe space for people to show up, connect over a meal and leave with a whole new Groupme of connections,” Schell said. 

Vitkorin said the dinner will serve as one of his favorite Longhorn memories, and the personally fulfilling experience left a remarkable impact on him.

“It was defining for my semester,” Vitkorin said. “It definitely made a mark on my personal history. I will remember that night on graduation.”