Moving away to college and leaving the comforts of home and family behind is a challenging adjustment many students make.
And if there truly is no place like home, Stan and René Shingles know how to help multicultural students from Chicago feel closer to their hometown while attending Central Michigan University.
Stan is the University Recreation assistant vice president, and René is a professor in and director of the athletic training program in the School of Rehabilitation and Medical Sciences. Each year, they invite students to their Mount Pleasant home for a Chicago-style Labor Day picnic.
Six students attended the first picnic eight years ago. It began to grow after word got out, and more than 80 students attended this year's event.
"The picnic started with freshman students because it's so important to keep them here that first weekend of the school year," said Stan Shingles, who is originally from Chicago. "If students are struggling to make adjustments after the first week and decide to go home for the weekend, they potentially aren't going to come back."
Of course, the picnic isn't the only event available at CMU to help students alleviate homesickness and encourage them build connections. Other resources and programs include the
CMU Counseling Center,
Leadership Safari and
Get Acquainted Day, among others.
At the picnic, the couple serves Chicago-inspired food — from barbecued ribs to spaghetti and Italian beef sandwiches. They display pro sports regalia and stream music from Chicago radio stations.
"I actually met my neighbor from Chicago's South Side at the Labor Day picnic," said Joi Mitchell, a marketing major and American Sign Language minor. "As we were talking about where we were from, we realized that we grew up within the same block."
An unofficial student organization
Through this three-hour picnic, the Chicago students build bonds that last during and beyond their years at CMU.
They find students who relate to what it's like to move from Chicago to Mount Pleasant — to life where public transportation isn't always available, where the daily pace and food choices are different, where they are members of an underrepresented population.
Suddenly, there are familiar faces to see on campus and friends to talk to about relatable college and life challenges. They even have established an online group chat to stay connected.
"If all else fails, I know these Chicago people have my back. It's like an unofficial registered student organization at CMU," Mitchell said.
Mitchell is a senior, but she is closely tied to the core of the first Chicago picnic in 2010.
It all started with her mother, Marilyn Gilbert-Mitchell.
"Are you going to invite us to your house to eat?"
Gilbert-Mitchell was a teacher at Julian High School Chicago and served as its Advancement Via Individual Determination coordinator. AVID provides professional learning for educators to help their students prepare for college, especially students who traditionally are underrepresented in higher education.
When she gave her students the option to choose any regional college to visit, they selected CMU. Joi Mitchell, then a high school freshman, was encouraged by her mother to join the group. She immediately was taken with CMU.
At the Student Activity Center, a campus tour leader invited Stan Shingles to chat with the nearly 30 Julian High School students about CMU and his life growing up in Chicago.
"One of the student asked me, 'If we're going to come to CMU, are you going to invite us to your house to eat?'" Shingles said. "I said, 'Of course I will!'"
The student and her twin sister enrolled, and that fall she held Shingles to his word.
The Chicago picnic is born
It started with a few students from Julian High School, who also invited their CMU friends from Chicago.
Stan and René continue to host the picnic and prepare the food. They also have tapped into other CMU staff to help serve it and connect with the students.
A team of five CMU students organizes and coordinates logistics for the picnic.
Mitchell is a member of this year's planning committee. She usually is more reserved and doesn't draw a lot of attention to herself.
That is, until it comes to the Chicago picnic.
"I will meet a lot of other students at the picnic, and I might not ever see them again. But I want to make sure they see me as a student from Chicago who found success at CMU," she said.