The Welcome Dinner Project: How food is bringing int’l students even closer to Australia

When newly arrived international students begin adjusting to their new lives abroad, feelings of homesickness will inevitably creep in. Most retreat into comfort food and meals that remind them of home to help ease the burden of feeling lonely and disconnected.

But what if there was a way for you to enjoy your comfort food and share its importance to you with new faces?

The Welcome Dinner Project achieves just that. Initialised by Australian not-for-profit organisation joiningthedots, the project fosters harmony between new arrivals and current Australians by bringing people from all walks of life together for a communal potlock dinner to remember.

The project’s strong sense of social inclusion and community building was what initially drew Nikhil Arora, an international graduate student from the University of Melbourne who currently serves as one of the project’s Victorian facilitators. When he first came to Melbourne in 2015, Nikhil was keen to make new friends and wanted to contribute positively outside of the classroom. He came across a Facebook post one day promoting the project and the rest became history.

“I considered [the Welcome Dinner Project] as an opportunity to make new Australian friends and get used to Australian lifestyle and in turn [wanted to] help, as a facilitator, other newly-arrived people, migrants and students make connections and integrate into their local communities,” he said.

Connection and integration is done over dinner where guests are encouraged to bring a dish with personal and cultural significance.

“Obviously, there would a variety at the dinner table and we ask all attendees to do their food introductions and tell us a story behind their food selection. The purpose is to make each guest feel special at a dinner and respect the differences we have and celebrate similarities that all cultures share in common,” Nikhil explained.

And with more than 175,000 international students studying in Victoria, ensuring those who may be displaced instead feel valued continues to be important to Nikhil and the Welcome Dinner Project team.

“The essence of the project is ‘food breaking down barriers’ and helping us stay connected in this modern and fast-paced lifestyle. The aim is to enrol more students into the project to help them grow their first roots in multicultural Australia, smoothen their transition to living abroad and ultimately make them feel at home,” he said.

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In addition to combating loneliness and homesickness common in young students studying overseas, Nikhil believes the experience of being involved with the project can go well beyond simply breaking the ice and engaging as a dinner attendee.

“Ultimately, we would like to get international students involved as volunteers, student ambassadors and interns. Students not only develop their English language skills at the dinner table but also their networking skills while getting a taste of Australian culture,” Nikhil maintained.

So how can international students participate and begin to feel more included in their local communities?

Through the Welcome Dinner Project, individuals can take part in one of three ways: attending a Home Welcome Dinner, attending a Community Welcome Dinner or hosting their own Home Welcome Dinner.

A Home Welcome Dinner is usually organised with the assistance of two trained facilitators and pairs eight established Australians with eight newcomers. If a dinner isn’t a viable option for a host, the project is also flexible in allowing hosts to organise a time for lunch as well. Picnics are also an option!

A Community Welcome Dinner, meanwhile, is much larger and normally runs in partnership with councils, sponsors and community organisations. Large communal dinners like this usually run when councils or local communities want to get to know fellow neighbours, celebrate a community milestone or launch a new initiative. Sometimes, it can even just be organised out of pure fun!

To attend or host a dinner, registrations need to be filled out at The Welcome Dinner Project’s official page (free of charge).

As the Welcome Dinner Project continues to expand, so too does Nikhil’s desire to “promote student integration into Australian communities and create a more welcoming, friendly and fair-go Australia.”

He wants to continue encouraging other international students to break the ice themselves and contribute in building their own diverse and resilient communities.

“A lot can happen during a dinner conversation and the bonds that you would make last forever! All you need to do is to step outside your comfort zone and say hello just once and you won’t realise where those dinner conversations can take you.”

For more information on The Welcome Dinner Project and how you can get involved, visit its official website.

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