The university potluck experience has become a staple at colleges throughout the U.S., serving as an opportunity for students to come together and learn about the different backgrounds of their peers, especially for international students. They are a time for students, colleagues and professors to come together and share a meal reflective of home.

Photo of tres leche cake decorated with the words MSCO 5 and 6Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was tradition for Salus University’s Department of International and Continuing Education (DICE) to host a holiday celebration for the international students. So when it came time to plan the recent holiday party, Dr. Melissa Vitek, dean of DICE, and Margie Singer, academic coordinator, decided to host a potluck in December at a local venue in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, for two student cohorts in the Master of Science in Clinical Optometry (MSCO) program.

“When we hosted a hybrid meet and greet for both student cohorts, some students were on campus and others joined virtually for the opportunity to meet the newly matriculated students and share their experiences,” Singer said. “The students bonded during the breakout sessions, discussing food and recipes from their native countries. Hence, we decided on a potluck.”

The potluck event was the first opportunity for both groups of MSCO students to meet face-to-face, network and nosh before the holiday break. 

“There are a lot of people in each cohort from different spots around the world and different backgrounds,” said Muhannad Faouri ‘22MSCO, a current student in the cohort that graduates in August. “They help me change, or let's say improve, my ways of thinking about what we learn as well as my profession. So, it was great meeting everyone.”

Faouri earned his bachelor’s degree in optometry from Jordan University of Science and Technology in his home country of Jordan. He came to the U.S. while completing his undergraduate and started working as an optometric technician upon graduation to learn more about the scope of practice here in the U.S. That’s when Faouri decided to stay and deepen his knowledge, enrolling in the University’s MSCO program.

Eager to share his favorite Middle Eastern dishes at the potluck event, he brought hummus, baba ghanoush and different types of shawarma with varying ingredients.

“It's like a present,” he said. “The breakfast that we do almost every day in Jordan is hummus, the falafel and other side dishes.”

Group photo of both MSCO cohorts at potluck dinner event
Due to the pandemic, the MSCO international cohort that graduated in December learned remotely, spending three, two-week periods on campus throughout the program, completing workshops and participating in controlled patient care. Faouri’s cohort will graduate in August 2022 and they’re currently using a hybrid format with two students on campus and eight learning remotely within the U.S.

Ginna (Liss) Vanegas-Hedayat, MSCO ‘21, a student in the cohort that graduated in December, also enjoyed the sense of community at the potluck dinner as an international student herself.

“We got to know more about each other and tried different types of food because we all come from different countries and I loved getting together,” she said. “I knew some of the students because I tutored, and it was nice to be able to actually talk to them and share food. I really like that they gave us a celebration.”

Vanegas-Hedayat, originally from Colombia, earned a doctor of optometry degree from the Universidad de La Salle in Bogotá, Colombia, and practiced as an ophthalmic technician in the U.S. for several years before starting the MSCO program at Salus. 
photo of Cuban salad with garnishes
She made Colombian rice pudding for the occasion. Her recipe, which came from her mother, used coconut, cinnamon, milk, rice and raisins and took about two hours to cook. It’s a dish that has a special meaning to Vanegas-Hedayat, reminiscent of a novena, a tradition unique to Colombia and parts of Ecuador and Venezuela, which takes place every night for the nine days preceding Christmas.

“We go to different families, to my cousin, then the next day to my aunt, then the next day it's at my house,” she said. “We each choose one day to cook something and come together for the holiday, eat and pray. The rice pudding was one of the dishes someone had to make during the week.”

Other dishes prepared by students who attended the potluck event included a Cuban salad, a tres leches cake and Egyptian fatta, a festive meat and rice dish.