Starting this week, Valentine Dining Hall is offering a new option for students interested in expanding their social circle. On Tuesday, the Student Health Educators launched the Valentine “social cup” initiative, which encourages students to use blue cups during meals to signal that they are open to sitting with people they don’t know.
For the beginning phase of the program, Dining Services is putting out 36 blue glasses and 20 blue mugs at each meal. When students approach the beverage racks, they will have a choice between regular cups and blue social cups. If students select a social cup, their choice indicates that they would be happy to have the company of a stranger, casual acquaintance, or even a friend with whom they haven’t spoken recently.
The social cups are the brainchild of Student Health Educator Caroline Broder ’15, who was inspired by an initiative launched at Dartmouth last spring.
“I was at Dartmouth this summer for a program,” Broder explained. “They had a similar idea, where they had red water cups out. It was also called the social cups there.”
However, Broder noted that Dartmouth’s program did not seem to be well publicized and that few students were using the cups. She hoped that with some modifications, she could make a similar program a success at Amherst.
Like Dartmouth’s program, Amherst’s initiative hopes to ease students’ fears about eating alone. Another Student Health Educator, Sarah Martell ’15 recalled hearing about a survey in which Amherst first-years had reported skipping meals due to their anxiety about eating alone.
“We thought that this would be a really good way to help people who don’t have someone to sit with, and also to change the environment in Val to an environment where either it’s not weird to sit alone, or it’s not weird to sit with people you don’t know,” Martell said.
Broder first brought up the concept of the social cups in a Student Health Educator meeting, where the idea received enthusiastic support.
“Then I came to the staff in Dining Services, Charlie [Thompson] and Debbie [Omasta-Mokrzecki], and they were super supportive from the beginning,” Brody said.
“I told Caroline I thought it was a great program,” said Charlie Thompson, Director of Dining Services. Thompson promised Broder that Dining Services would do what it could to support the social cups initiative. Thompson ordered a limited number of blue cups and mugs for the program’s beginning phase, and he said that he will add more if more are needed.
Thompson also worked with Broder to make sure that the blue social cups were similar in size and shape to the other cups at Valentine, in order to fix a problem that Broder had observed at Dartmouth.
“One of the logistical things I noticed is that the cups they had there were bigger,” said Broder, speaking about Dartmouth’s red social cups. “A lot of people would take them because they could fit more liquid, so people weren’t using them for the right purpose.”
Even if the cups are correctly sized, Broder predicted that there will inevitably be people who use the social cups the wrong way. She and Martell also worry that people will take the cups back to their dorms and not return them — a chronic problem at Valentine.
Still, the Student Health Educators hope to minimize misuse of the social cups by enlisting the support of leaders on campus. Dean of Students Jim Larimore is one enthusiastic proponent of the initiative.
“I think the Social Cups idea is brilliant — simple, easy to do, visible and fun,” Larimore said. On Sunday, he sent an e-mail to the entire College community introducing the program and lauding the efforts of the Student Health Educators to build a more inclusive and welcoming student body.
The Student Health Educators have also received support from student organizations such as the Resident Counselors and the Random Acts of Kindness Club.
“I think if we have enough leaders on campus who are using [the cups] and excited about meeting new people, then it can become a cool thing to do in Val,” Martell said.
Despite the challenges inherent in persuading Amherst students to change their habits, Broder and Martell both report positive experiences sitting with strangers in the dining hall, and they hope that others will be encouraged to do the same.
“I like to, in the mornings especially, sit with different people,” Broder said. “And people have come over [to sit next] to me before, and I think that’s cool. Even if I’m doing work alone, just to sit with someone is nice sometimes.”