Howard Gillman and Lou Gill
“I wanted to get to know the provost personally, and I learned a lot about his educational background as well as how he feels about our wonderful campus here at UC Irvine. We were able to casually discuss a variety of topics,” says freshman Nida Fatima of her dinner with Provost & Executive Vice Chancellor Howard Gillman (far left) and Mesa Court housing director Lou Gill (center). Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

Nothing feels quite as homey as breaking bread together. Re-creating that feeling of family, while giving students a chance to get acquainted with top-level administrators and distinguished faculty, is the goal of a series of dinners in UC Irvine’s Mesa Court first-year housing community. The most recent of these paired freshmen with Provost & Executive Vice Chancellor Howard Gillman.

Lou Gill, housing director at Mesa Court, came up with the idea. “It’s part of UC Irvine’s effort to maintain a small-college feel on a relatively large campus of about 28,000 students,” he says.

“The dinners are hosted for six to eight students in my home at Mesa Court. I order food from the dining commons for the dinner, so [nonresident] guests can experience what the students eat on a daily basis. Many students have commented that the dining hall food tastes better on ‘real people’ plates.”

Freshman Jenny Vuong says the meals have the desired effect: “We’re at a very big campus, and it’s difficult to feel like you’re a part of it at times, but when we’re passing around the mashed potatoes, it really feels like a family.”

But the main attraction, Gill says, is the opportunity to forge relationships. Past faculty and staff representatives at these dinners have included Thomas Parham, vice chancellor for student affairs; Sharon Salinger, dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education; Graciela Fernandez, director of the Student Outreach & Retention Center; and Ami Glazer, professor of economics.

Gill invited students from Sierra Hall to dine on Mexican and Italian food with Gillman on the occasion of the hall’s 40th anniversary.

“Sierra is UCI’s oldest living and learning community,” Gill says. “Students who live there enroll in a social ecology course offered every quarter called ‘Moral Development & Just Community,’ based on [Lawrence] Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.”

Zack Maddren, a Japanese major who attended the dinner, says, “I hope Provost Gillman learned that Sierra Hall is a great community that allows people of a wide background to cohabitate in a certain space and learn from one another.”

Fellow dorm resident Howard Liu reports that “Provost Gillman was very interested in our opinions on a wide variety of things, ranging from the meal to our overall experience so far at the university.”

And Liu had something besides food in common with the administrator: “Our shared first name made for fun small talk during introductions, and it definitely made it easier for him to remember my name.”