December 02, 2022

OCAT Hosts 20th Unity Dinner

On Nov. 24, the Office of Cultural & Academic Transitions (OCAT) served up nearly 800 meals for MSU students who remained on campus during the Thanksgiving holiday. This year marked a major milestone as OCAT celebrated its annual Unity Dinner’s 20th anniversary.

The event has grown substantially and shown great success since approximately 30 students attended the first rendition in 2003. Produced by a former OCAT aide, the event met the need to support students who remain on campus during the November holiday. Students stay on campus for a variety of reasons including being unable to afford time away or simply being from outside the state and even the country. The diversity of reasons students stay on campus is only met by the diversity of the crowd, with attendees representing locales as near as Lansing to nations across the globe. 

“The extent of diversity in this space is something that cannot be overlooked,” said Samuel Saldivar, Ph.D., director of OCAT. “That’s a beautiful thing.”
Nabila Zahira, a senior exchange student in the Indonesian International Student Mobility Awards Program agrees. After hearing about the event from other international students who would be unable to go home over the break, they made plans to attend the Unity Dinner together. She was pleasantly surprised to find the event offered more than just a warm meal. 

“I honestly feel a sense of community — like I’m not alone here,” said Zahira. “I did not expect this many people to show up. It’s interesting to see that people want to spend time with others they don’t even know. But we can all feel at home here.”

Dr. Saldivar said it’s a pleasant sight to see students share tables and meals with strangers. They are all Spartans, after all. Students even bring their spouses and children to enjoy good company and try new foods. The event also featured a halal line, and OCAT hopes to continue diversifying the menu to better represent the diversifying crowd. 

It is this sense of community and coalition-building that has been integral to the event’s growth and success. About 500 students RSVP’d beforehand. OCAT, on this milestone, is hoping to continue rebuilding the event’s traction following interruptions from the pandemic. The dinner this year was held in the Brody Classrooms and OCAT is already discussing how to incorporate the event into a larger space. The goal is to make even more students feel welcome — like family — at MSU.

For some, that means attending with their “family” away from home. Mathematics Ph.D. student Adithya Sathyanarayana attended with his fellow first-year math grad students. He didn’t know what to expect but upon experiencing the Unity Dinner, he felt the mix in composition was amazing. 
“A lot of people. A lot of food,” he said. “It’s a new experience, and it feels nice. It feels very welcoming.”

A large part of that warm welcome is due to the planners and volunteers, who all take time out of their holiday to serve and offer community to the attendees. More than 30 volunteers helped with the Unity Dinner, and some have even made volunteering at the event a tradition of their own. That’s also something Dr. Saldivar feels cannot be overlooked. 

“The interest, passion and commitment our volunteers have is so evident. With how they’re connecting with community, you just can’t help but be grateful for it,” Saldivar explained. “We even have alumni here that don’t currently work at the institution and who come specifically to be involved with this. For me, that is just so amazing. It shows the extent to which this event has truly become a tradition.” 

Dr. Saldivar feels that speaks heavily to each students’ desire to be in community, no matter where you come from or how you present. This is indicative of the importance of such an event not only reaching 20 years but building a foundation to hopefully serve students for decades to come. That’s something for which he is thankful. 

Students like Zahira are also thankful. 

“In here, everyone is just so welcoming. Everyone is saying ‘hi’ to everybody and ‘Happy Thanksgiving,’” shared Zahira. “There is this feeling that everyone is coming here with the same mindset. Everyone is open to meeting new people and welcoming others. That’s really nice, and I think people should experience this [event] at least once.”


Spartan helmet