Meet as Strangers, Leave as Friends

Dinner with 12 Strangers could become a new Northwestern alumni tradition.

If there’s one thing the college experience teaches beyond critical thinking, it’s the appreciation of a good square meal.

Last fall more than 200 students enjoyed great food and good company as part of the Northwestern Alumni Association’s new Dinner with 12 Strangers program. More than 20 Chicago-area alumni welcomed students into their homes, and others hosted dinners at local restaurants in October and November.

These dinners, co-sponsored by the Northwestern Class Alliance student organization, featured pizza at Carmen’s and meals at other restaurants, catered culinary fare at the Chicago Park District’s South Shore Cultural Center and home-cooked meals around the dining-room table. The meals gave students the chance to relax and connect with fellow students, alumni and faculty members on an informal basis.

“The atmosphere was casual and comfortable,” says Marissa Ronk, a sophomore English and political science major from Long Grove, Ill., who dined at the Wilmette home of Jim and Louise Stewart Yao (N62). “We had the White Sox game on in the background and over the course of the night, everyone just became more comfortable.”

Hosts Holly Leach Sunshine (WCAS71) and her husband, Gene Sunshine (WCAS71), the University’s senior vice president of business and finance, broke the ice with their guests by showing them their Syllabus yearbooks and fraternity and sorority guidebooks and telling stories about how they met on campus and began dating. They also recalled the student activism and racial tension that existed on campus in the late ’60s and early ’70s — well before these students were born. “It was great hearing about this part of Northwestern’s history through the first-person perspective,” says Jessica Joslin, a senior social policy and history major. “It’s really a part of our history now that we’re here.”

Word spread quickly about the success of the first round of dinners, held Oct. 15–16 — so quickly that online reservations for the Nov. 11–12 dinners were filled by Oct. 17.

Alumni had fun planning the meals, too. A chocolate fountain was a highlight of dinner at the Evanston home of Ron Sims (C58) and Greta Maerkle Sims (WCAS58), and Kimberly Miller Rubenfeld (WCAS96, KSM04) cooked “Northwestern” purple beets (a family recipe) for guests at her home in Chicago’s Roscoe Village.

Her group also enjoyed a humorous game of Northwestern trivia and laughed about how different campus life was in comparison with her own era only a decade ago. “They were stunned when I told them that I didn’t have a cell phone or Internet access in my dorm room!” she says.

Guests at the home of Carolyn Hall Krulee (SESP69) and her husband, Gil, an emeritus professor at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, discussed journalism and politics. Carolyn said a number of students exchanged contact information. “The idea to have dinner with 12 strangers and leave with 12 friends really worked,” she says. “It was nice to see students from different majors and even different countries connect so well.”

Brian Klesh, a Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences junior from Wildwood, Mo., says he plans to keep in touch with his alumni host, Rubenfeld, with whom he shares an interest in running and triathlon racing, as well as with other dinner guests. “One of the other students that attended has already ‘friended’ me on,” he says. (See “Web of Friends.”)

David Eckert (McC77), whose son D.J. is a Weinberg senior and son John is a McCormick sophomore, went so far as to fly in from his Boston-area home to host a dinner at Pete Miller’s Seafood and Prime Steak in Evanston with his brother, Jim Eckert (McC72). “Much of the talk at our dinner centered around doing this more often, and based on the enthusiasm of our alumni, I hope it will become an annual tradition,” says David.

To learn more about NAA programs that connect alumni with students, visit the NAA web site,