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Fuel an Open Mind with International Food Day

Carrie Awadzi, EdD, uses the age-old ritual of breaking bread to help students appreciate cultures and perspectives different from their own.

Educator

Carrie Awadzi, EdD

Visiting Professor of Business, Delaware State University in Dover

EdD in Organizational Leadership, Learning, and Innovation; MS and BS in Business Administration, Organizational Leadership

“We may have different religions, different languages, different-colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.” This famous quote from Kofi Annan is a favorite of Carrie Awadzi, EdD, and a driving force behind her approach to teaching.

As a visiting professor of organizational behavior at Delaware State University, Dr. Awadzi believes that making personal and cultural connections among professionals in the workplace is vital in our era of growing global interdependence—both for companies and for the individuals who employ them.

“Organizations need to be more prepared for employees from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds by appreciating diversity and also understanding how to manage it,” she says. “By not doing so, there can be serious ramifications, including tension in the workplace, lower productivity, and potential lawsuits.”

As a savvy international traveler, Dr. Awadzi knows that making friends and learning about other cultures often happens more easily over a food-laden table. So, to round out her curriculum—and offer her students a window into the culture of far-flung countries—Dr. Awadzi hosts an International Food Day. At the event, students in the class introduce and share items and cuisine that reflect their own heritage. The result: New bonds of friendship and a deeper level of cultural appreciation that can help students thrive in the internationalized workplace.

Below, she shares key details on how she organizes this impactful event.

Challenge

US students lack international awareness

Even when digital technology and mass media link the far corners of the world, many students growing up in America remain unfamiliar with the racial, religious, and cultural communities beyond their own. Dr. Awadzi believes that the increasing diversity of employees in the workplace makes it more important than ever to explore, understand, respect, and celebrate other cultures.

Innovation

Use the dinner table to build a bridge

Even during sensitive international negotiations, experienced diplomats know that sitting down to dinner can help smooth the way to better agreements. Dr. Awadzi brings this spirit of international cooperation to her classroom by hosting a casual gathering where food serves as the doorway to better cultural rapprochement.

Context

“You can’t discuss organizational behavior without discussing the individual. Organizational behavior is not just the study of human behavior in the workplace. You have to look at the entire person, including their background, their values, how they grew up, their personality, their personal goals and motivations, and their previous work and life experiences.”

— Carrie Awadzi, EdD

Course: MGMT 325 Organizational Behavior

Course description: The course addresses the application of behavioral science theories and research to understanding the behavior of persons in the work place with an emphasis on factors that impact workers’ morale, group dynamics, and worker efficiency.

 

 

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Dr. Awadzi’s International Food Day event

To host an effective and enjoyable International Food Day, Dr. Awadzi uses several strategies that have stood the test of time in the five years she has been hosting this event. Each is designed to streamline the planning and create enthusiasm among her students—who hail from a wide variety of international and cultural backgrounds. Here are her top tips for educators considering a similar approach.

Schedule it late in the semester

“I’ve found that if we do it at the beginning of the semester, students are still trying to figure out my teaching style and their peers’ learning styles. The students are going through the natural progression of stages of group development and getting along through the ‘forming, storming, norming’ stages,” she says.

Instead, Dr. Awadzi schedules her International Food Day for a single 75-minute class period that falls about a month before the semester ends. By then, she says, students have come to know each other better, establish trust, build friendships and bonds, and worked together in groups and teams.

But start planning it early on

Dr. Awadzi has noticed that advance notice helps build excitement among the students. “For them it’s not just food, because they’re not having this experience in any other place,” says Dr. Awadzi. “So it’s like, ‘I don’t want to miss out on this new, fun, unique, different initiative. I want to be in there!’”

And students are not the only ones who await the event, she discovered. “I didn’t realize what a huge hit my International Food Days events were until about three years ago. The day of that event, I was walking to my classroom, and I saw several people waiting outside of my door—I thought they needed me for something. They were academic advisors and some professors that just wanted to join in on the fun!”

Appoint a student planning committee

Though International Food Day was Dr. Awadzi’s idea, she has found that drawing her students into the planning process helps the event proceed more smoothly. “The buy-in from students is critical,” she says. “I let them know up front that I am participating, and that I wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I would not be doing also.” She creates her event-planning committee early in the semester—about one month into the course.

Committee members are responsible for making class announcements and sending emails to secure a list of dishes and items that different students will bring, and they must provide progress reports each week. Dr. Awadzi says she assigns a variety of students to the committee. “I will ask extroverts and introverts, and the mix is perfect! You have students that normally would not connect that are encouraged to work together for a successful event. I have my list of expectations and want them to plan and execute. I then leave it to them to delegate among themselves. I like for students to have autonomy—just work together and get the task done. I am big on tasks being student led.”

Provide some best practices

Since every student committee is new to the event, however, Dr. Awadzi gives them some pointers that will make the event run well. For example, because the event will be scheduled for only one class period, all dishes, plates, cups, tablecloths, and other materials need to be set up prior to the beginning of the event on that day.

Dr. Awadzi says it is also important to analyze the event afterward, as a group. “I hold a verbal reflection when we meet, the next class after the event. I always let them start the discussion. I go to each student and have them verbally share to the class what they learned, what they like to do differently, and what could be improved. I share what I learned and thank them for their participation. Additionally, I tie everything back into the coursework to ensure we are connecting our experiences back to the theories.”

Keep participation costs in mind

Noting that Delaware State University draws its students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, Dr. Awadzi is aware that some of her students struggle financially. “The planning committee does a great job of coming up with alternatives for students that struggle with what to bring. The students are very thoughtful,” she notes.

To ease cost worries, she suggests that her students bring in cuisine that will feed only a portion—not all—of the class. Not everyone will sample every dish, she reminds them. She also encourages students to team up on dishes if they wish.

For students who would rather not spend money on creating a dish, she suggests they bring a show-and-tell item that might reflect their family heritage. Dr. Awadzi, whose own heritage is Ghanaian, brings jollof rice as a food item but also enjoys showing off kente cloth and Ghanaian currency (known as cedi).

Invite students to enlist help from family

Though International Food Day is a way for a diverse group of students to bond with each other, Dr. Awadzi has seen how preparing family cuisine can also bring them closer to their own loved ones. In fact, she recalls one student telling her, “I never wanted to be in the kitchen cooking, but through this assignment I was bonding with my mom, who was reminiscing about her time overseas.”

Dr. Awadzi adds, “I’ve had students come tell me, ‘We were up all night with family members making sure [the dish] was perfect.’ And I love when they share that with me. Because school is a family thing. Someone is out there loving you, supporting you, motivating you, and encouraging you to finish school.”

Ease fears with food labels

Dr. Awadzi asks her students to bring note cards that describe the dishes they contribute, both to alert classmates about potential allergens and to enlighten. For example, certain cuisines—such as oxtail—likely look and taste far different than some might expect. Some students shrug, others look perplexed, and still others are excited at the idea of expanding their palate and cultural understanding.

“I tell them, ‘You have to be open about experiencing different things,’” she says. “You can’t just look at something and say you don’t like it. You have to try it first. Once you have tried it, you can determine if you do or do not like it. But you cannot do that prior to. I tell them to, ‘Try new foods and travel the world without leaving our classroom.’ And that opens minds. As a society, we can get stuck doing what we’ve always done, and that is boring.”

Link the event to open-mindedness at work

A habit of not making quick judgments or uninformed assumptions—sparked by this popular food day—can greatly benefit students in their future professional lives, Dr. Awadzi adds, especially when members of far-flung cultures, religions, and backgrounds are all working under one roof. “Taking that time to truly know your employee is key,” she tells her students. “If you don’t, you’re going to end up with bad press or your name in the news for something that you just weren’t aware of, and it doesn’t take much to spend time with your employees to get to know them. So I say, ‘When you get into your positions, whether it’s management or executive or whatever, don’t assume that you’re not going to like something. Always come in with an open mind.’”

Thanks to International Food Day, students are off to a great place to start practicing that mental habit, she adds. “It’s really a time to decompress, talk, chat, laugh, and explain stories about where things come from and how they came about,” Dr. Awadzi says. “We’ve prepped for this. We’ve planned for this. Let’s eat, share, discuss, and be full. That’s the goal.”

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