Take Your Professor to Lunch, compliments of the University of Minnesota

CSE students reap long-term benefits from campus program

January 21, 2020

During his freshman year, electrical engineering student Joe Nogosek didn’t know his professors very well. At the University of Minnesota, home to more than 50,000 students, large class sizes and time restraints are likely to restrict how well students can get to know the faculty. However, during his sophomore year, Nogosek found out about the Take Your Professor to Lunch Program on the Twin Cities campus.

Ever since then, he has taken every one of his electrical engineering professors out for a meal because “something changes when you’re being taught by someone you’re acquainted with rather than a stranger,” Nogosek said.

The Take Your Professor to Lunch Program was started in 2001 as a way to help students in large classes have more personal interaction with their professors, according to Kate Ryan, program specialist in the University’s Office of Undergraduate Education. 

“Getting to know your faculty is a great way to not only succeed in the class, but also network for research experience, gain insight into the field, and build a connection for a future letter of recommendation,” Ryan said.

During fall semester, about 460 students—from the College of Science and Engineering, and beyond—participated in the program. 

Topics of conversation

Meghana Woodruff, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering, liked listening to her professor’s lectures and wanted to get to know him better. Since her Multivariable Calculus class had more than 30 students, she was eligible to take Professor Dennis Hejhal to lunch for free through the program.

She invited two classmates, CSE students Amera Poppen and William Okuno, to join her, thus meeting the minimum requirement of three students per lunch group. 

Woodruff decided on the Campus Club, which is among the program’s approved list of dining options, and submitted her application online. A few days later, she received meal vouchers worth $11 per person. This was Woodruff’s second time participating in such an activity. 

“The program was very easy to coordinate,” she said.

Because striking up a conversation with a professor might seem intimidating at first to some students, Ryan provides a few conversation topics to students and professors before their lunch.

She suggests that students ask about their professor’s research, how they got started in their field, potential job opportunities in their field of teaching and other college or life advice.

Professors, on the other hand, could ask students why they chose the University of Minnesota, what they like about the class or ways to improve it, challenges the students may be facing as an undergraduate and what they are curious about. 

When asked what Woodruff learned of Professor Hejhal through a recent lunch, she said his vast and historical knowledge.

“He told us about his experiences teaching in Sweden,” she explained, “additionally, he gave us insight on how the University and CSE has changed over the years.”

Hejhal has taught mathematics courses at the University of Minnesota since 1978.

When Nogosek, now a junior in electrical engineering, has lunches with faculty, he brings along his friend and CSE student Carson Abrahamson. They tend to talk to their professors about their specific research and then get advice moving forward. 

“The conversation normally starts with us asking about background and research, but after that it will be pretty natural,” Nogosek said. “Normally, they will ask us why we are choosing to study electrical engineering.”

Other times, professors may talk more about their personal life.

Nogosek learned that computer science professor James Moen drew cartoons away from the classroom.

“He told us about the book he’s writing and his life as a cartoonist and deciding on a whim to get his Ph.D.," Nogosek said. “He’s a very wholesome guy.”

After getting to know his professor on a personal level, Abrahamson recommends the program to each student “who is enthusiastic about getting to know their professor and the institution they’re studying at"—don't just do it for a free lunch, he added.

Semester-long impact

Each year, over 700 students participate in the University of Minnesota’s Take Your Professor to Lunch program and surveys show 94 percent of students said it had a positive impact on the rest of their semester in the course. 

According to survey results compiled by the undergraduate office, students “feel more self-motivated to work hard in the class by having a personal connection with the professor,” they were “able to ask two professors for letters of recommendation after having lunch with them,” and it helped them learn “more about the major and different things that I can do with my degree.”

After having lunch with Hejhal and her two classmates, Woodruff said it will now “be easier to approach him with questions about the course since we now know each other a little bit better.”
Hejhal finds the program beneficial as well.

He said it’s something different from the “normal 'professoring' activities and helps make UMN feel like a smaller, less impersonal, place. I’m all for that! Lunch was fun and I was delighted to be invited by my students. The small group size was perfect.”

Story by Kathryn Richner