About halfway through his first year at Lehigh, Ovie Ojeni, ’18, found himself missing his mom’s home cooked meals. So much so that he approached on-campus dietitian Carrie Gerencher at Lower Cort’s Simple Servings station and asked her if the chef could make him jollof rice, a traditional Nigerian food he enjoyed from home.
Somewhat to his surprise, Gerencher was immediately receptive to Ojeni’s requests, asking him what he’d like with his jollof rice.
“Oh, you mean I can make an entire meal?” he said to her.
What started as a plate of traditional Nigerian rice turned into a partnership between Ojeni and Lehigh Dining to expose students to various cultures by allowing them to “travel the world once a month” through Global Cuisine Nights.
The first Global Cuisine Night took place in the Spring 2015 semester, featuring a traditional meal chosen by Ojeni that resembled something his mom would make him at home. However, he wanted to go further than that to ensure students were engaging with his culture beyond just his food.
“People think it’s solely about the food, but it’s not,” Ojeni said. “We attack the five senses because we don’t want to exclude anyone’s learning style.”
Ojeni provided the dining hall with recipes from home to meet the senses of taste and smell, but he also supplemented these things with traditional textile materials and objects for students to touch, as well as bringing in pictures and flags to stimulate sight and even provided a playlist of popular Nigerian music to include the final sense of sound.
“I think when you attack the five senses, you allow for the recall to happen, it’s more intimate, more inclusive of all the learning styles, where some students don’t even recognize that they’re learning,” he said. “They’re fun and informative, but they’re not boring lecture settings where you’re forced to learn.”
The night was ultimately a success with a great number of students expressing their interest and letting Ojeni know there was much more to his Nigerian culture than they thought.
However, it wasn’t until one student approached him with a question.
“This is awesome,” the student had said, “This is great, but when can we have our night?”
This led Ojeni to realize he had an opportunity to make a difference on Lehigh’s campus.
“I felt before Global Cuisine that Lehigh wasn’t celebrating different cultures year round,” he said. “Sure you had that generic one night or one week acknowledgement of diversity or cultures on campus, but I wanted to get rid of ignorance on campus through the nights… so many students thought it was so cool and different, but I wanted to make that a norm.”
After this, Ojeni created a sign-up sheet where students could provide information about themselves, their culture and what cultural elements — recipes, music, traditional items or objects — they would want to provide to bring their culture to life on campus through a Global Cuisine Night. Once students submit the form, Ojeni then sets up an interview to discuss the ideas in person, emphasizing the highly personal nature of the nights. The student planning the night provides the playlist and the fun facts about how they interact with their culture, allowing students to experience the culture through the eyes of their peers, something that Ojeni believes brings students together.
He then works closely with Gerencher and Sodexo chefs to produce a menu they can serve in the dining hall.
“A lot of it is simple mom-and-pop style stuff from home that we just have to work through the ingredients,” said Joseph Kornafel, a Rathbone Hall executive chef. “I absolutely love the concept and what I love is the student interaction and giving the students a taste of what they miss from home”
In addition to helping Ojeni plan meals and advertise the Global Cuisine Nights, Gerencher has also added her own touch by finding other on-campus groups to incorporate into the cultural celebrations. After attending DanceFest last year, Gerencher thought to reach out to The African Renaissance Group, which then performed at Nigerian Night, as well as the university’s belly dancing club who performed at this semester’s Lebanese Night.
“The whole thing is that we want to have students get educated in the dining room but experience the culture,” Gerencher said. “I just think it’s fun to work with the students and let them make their own menu. They’re putting it together for their peers.”
Gerencher also praised Ojeni for approaching her with his requests in the first place. She encourages students to engage with the staff as Ojeni did.
“If you want something, the worst thing we can say is no,” she said. “If you really want your mom’s lasagna, give us your mom’s lasagna recipe.”
For Ojeni, the Global Cuisine Nights mean more than just that as he hopes to expand them across Lehigh’s campus and beyond. In addition to the Guatemalan, Nigerian and Lebanese nights he has already hosted, Ojeni already has more nights in the works including Ethiopian Night, Indian Night and Brazilian Night.
He also plans to move beyond just the dining halls and hopes to host Lehigh After Dark events where students can engage with the cultures further through crafts, dancing or other activities.
“My goal is to expand to other campuses and partner with Sodexo to make it a program that I could spread to other campuses, in order to combat the bigger issue which is a lack of cultural awareness on higher education campuses, but we’ll see where that ends up,” he said.