CU Denver student Ugo Akiri
Ugo Akiri, an information systems student from Nigeria, enjoyed a dinner at the home of Andrea Wagner, vice chancellor of Advancement and CU Denver alumna.

Friendships formed. Food shared. Cultural understanding deepened.

By all accounts, the inaugural CU at the Table program proved a rousing success. “We’re excited to share that we had 33 students enjoy dinners in the homes of 13 hosts, including nine alumni and several faculty and staff members,” said Dan Gould, executive director, Alumni Relations and Annual Giving.

The dinners took place on and around the Thanksgiving holiday and were intended to serve as a welcoming outlet for current CU Denver international students, who make up 7 percent of our student body. The pilot program is a collaboration between the university’s Office of International Affairs and CU Denver Alumni Relations.

Chancellor Dorothy Horrell came up with the idea after traveling last spring with a university leadership team to visit leaders and alumni in the Middle East. Horrell asked, “Are we doing as much as possible to make CU Denver a welcoming community for our international students? Have they visited an American home?”

The students who participated viewed CU at the Table as an opportunity to learn more about American culture, make some new friends and enjoy a holiday meal. “When the program was announced I thought it was a great idea,” said Ugo Akiri, a Nigerian graduate student in information systems at the Business School. “Getting to dine with alumni sounded fun. I didn’t know I was going to be dining with a vice chancellor!”

Akiri and Yixin Li, a Chinese undergraduate student majoring in economics, were guests on Nov. 30 at the home of Andrea Wagner, vice chancellor of Advancement, and her husband, Peter McEwen. Wagner was among the many CU Denver alumni who hosted dinners; she is 2014 graduate (MA in Spanish).

Wagner enjoyed learning about China and Nigeria, countries she’s never visited, as well as getting the opportunity to share insights about U.S. customs with her guests. “I think this is so important for our international students to have an opportunity to see what it’s actually like to come into our homes and live in the United States,” Wagner said.

‘Memorable moments’

Chancellor Horrell and her husband, Ted, hosted four international students on Nov. 30. The guests represented India – Udaya Sree Mutyala and Varun Khurana – and China – Ziying Zhao and Furui Zhao.

Four international students hosted by CU Denver chancellor
Four CU Denver international students enjoy dinner at the home of Chancellor Dorothy Horrell and her husband, Ted. The students are, from left, Varun Khurana, Furui Zhao, Ziying Zhao and Udaya Sree Mutyala.

Mutyala said the three hours at the Horrells’ home put her mind completely at ease from the stress of impending finals. “Being an international student, I was always curious about Thanksgiving and why it is given importance,” she said. “My curiosity about American culture made me participate in CU at the Table. I would definitely recommend events like this to my fellow students.”

In a thank you note to the Horrells, Khurana said the get-together was “one of the best, memorable moments for me till now in Denver.”

The Horrell household served Italian fare while the Wagner home featured a Mexican buffet. The chancellor said the evening was filled with “great conversation” about the students’ experiences both in their home countries and here in Denver. “They bring life experiences, insights and perspectives that really add to the richness of our educational environment,” Horrell said. “The question now is: How do we capitalize on that further than we have up to this point?”

‘A welcoming place’

CU Denver student Yixin Li
Yixin Li enjoys the hospitality of CU at the Table at the Wagner household.

Gould joined the dinner at the Wagner household along with his wife and daughter. Besides the rich exchange it fosters between the students and their hosts, the CU at the Table program allows CU Denver to show in a significant way that “this is a welcoming place for our international student community, which is important right now,” Gould said.

Yixin Li, who is part of CU Denver’s International College Beijing (ICB) program, wrote a thank you note to Wagner: “I am really thankful for you and your husband being such generous hosts, as well as your patience in listening to issues of international students. Finding out you have such concern for international students made Denver feel so much more like home.”

Horrell said she’d like to see CU at the Table expand to include both international and domestic students in the future. “We want to create as many opportunities as possible for our students to connect with and learn from each other,” she said.

Before the second iteration of the program rolls around, it’s likely that friendships formed this fall will result in more outings. “At our dinner,” the chancellor said, “we talked about how hopefully this spring the six of us can get together and go to the students’ favorite restaurants around town.”

More alumni CU at the Table / #YouAreWelcomeHere

One of the largest alumni-hosted CU at the Table gatherings took place at the home of Renee Waller (MS’97). She hosted two CU Denver international students (Ruiheng Zhang and Yash Nlgam), in addition to four international students from CU Boulder and her niece Natalie Kellett (BA’15, and current CU Denver staff) and Kellett’s boyfriend Nick Beers (BA’16).

– In a related effort to make our international students feel welcome, CU Denver has joined the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign. Watch the video here.

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