Hospitality: not just for boomers, but for you, too

Above, the writer (far right) and her dinner guests. Courtesy of Hazel Johnstone

Before I came to Vassar, the word “hospitality” conjured up images of put-together, middle-aged adults hosting ornate dinner parties and serving tea in clear crystal cups. I imagined a couple effortlessly preparing perfectly plated gourmet meals in their spotless suburban home as a Schubert tune hums in the background. Hospitality was a 1950s dinner situation—safe, clean and homogenous.

With these notions stubbornly engraved in my mind, I didn’t think “crystal cup” hospitality could fit into a college setting like Vassar—a place of borrowed spaces, cramped dorm rooms and crusty kitchens. Sure, many students have successfully hosted casual meals and birthday bashes over the years. But hospitality felt weightier to me—a power I wasn’t old enough to possess and enable the practice of at campus. However, for the past four years, I’ve watched radical hospitality unfold in every corner of campus: community dinners, House Fellow tea parties, professors’ office hours and my own hosting experience at my SoCo. My notions of what hospitality should look like have been narrow and false— shrimp cocktails and decades of experience are periphery. Hospitality is not only possible here, but essential for student flourishing.

To understand how students conceptualize and practice hospitality at Vassar, I talked to a few friends and professors. My housemate Penelope Mort Ranta ’20 said she didn’t fully understand how to be an accommodating host until she studied abroad in Morocco last fall. What struck her most was her newfound friends’ willingness to graciously welcome her into their homes and immediately open up to vulnerable conversation, often prompting her to get vulnerable, too. When she returned to Vassar last spring, Penelope decided to open up her dorm room in Main for a weekly book discussion group on “Crazy Love” by Francis Chan. Some of my richest conversations on faith and love to date unfolded on her oversized beige rug. After popping handfuls of M&Ms into our mouths on her fluffy orange pillows, we left each Thursday awed by her facilitation of deep discussion in the intimacy of her own living space.

I also reached out to Assistant Professor of Psychological Science and Strong House Fellow Lori Newman. As both her former statistics student and Strong resident, I was struck by her ability to create hospitable spaces in her Olmsted office and in Strong parlor. Reflecting on her hospitality practices at Vassar, she wrote via email, “I don’t think hospitality necessarily has to be a planned event but taking advantage of opportunities to be hospitable when they arrive … The most important part of hospitality is making your visitors feel comfortable engaging with you, and this often means finding topics of conversation that lead to connections.”

Her ability to create comfort in a space is Newman’s favorite part about hosting Strong House’s Teasdays, which she described as a “weekly student gathering for tea, cookies, and conversation.” During this time, neighbors and friends can engage with each other while sipping cinnamon spice tea and munching on buttery shortbread. “I don’t always know all of the conversations that happen, but I love that the students relax and have a setting to spend time with one another,” she shared. Besides the free food she offers, students come because they want to feel at ease and engaged: a touchpoint for connection amid a hectic week.

TA resident Kathryn Burke ’20, who has hosted community dinners for Vassar Food Community (VFC) throughout the year, also contributed her thoughts on creating space for connection through food and rich conversation. Last week a few VFC members came to her TA to cook ginger chicken with roasted tomato and curry chickpeas, finishing with the sweet citrusy goodness of orange-cranberry muffins. For her, hospitality is a way to recreate a sense of home at Vassar, especially for first-years. She expressed gratitude to upperclassmen and faculty who welcomed her into
their own spaces with hospitality, because it brought her college life a sense of home. Now as a senior, she describes how it “feels so rewarding to pay it forward…for underclassmen who are still adjusting to campus life.”

While these friends and professors could practice hospitality with ease, I still didn’t think I was qualified to act as a host myself. When I first decided to invite some friends over for dinner, I had never hosted anything before college and my cooking skills were still infantile. Previously unasked questions emerged as I prepared to welcome friends for dinner in my home for the very first time: Am I able to provide for my guests’ needs? Will they think this space is too sparse? Is 68 degrees warm enough? Why don’t we have more than six cups in the cabinet?

After some wild, somewhat overcooked, but lovely dinners, I realized that the core of hospitality is generous reception, not put-togetherness. In fact, the word is defined in the dictionary as “the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way” (Dictionary. com, “Hospitality”). More than clean couches and good food, it is about letting people in both physically and emotionally. By nature,
it’s a vulnerable practice.

Hosting also made me realize that my space is not my own, and neither are my resources. My parents bought the clothes on my back. Vassar owns this SoCo apartment. My brother gave me this computer. The chili chicken in the fridge is left over from Meals to Go. Take away all the items and spaces I have been gifted over the years, and I would probably only possess a single strand of twinkle lights (not even twinkling because Vassar pays for the electricity). Life is hospitality, sharing.

Hospitality feels so uncomfortable because opening your space to another person feels dangerous, even invasive. I’ve wondered to myself: What if people take advantage of my generosity? What if they insult my faith in my own space? What if guests mock my house’s obsession with sloths and chore charts and outdated maps? By inviting people into our private sanctuaries, we are challenged to put down our public facades and expose our raw, uncurated selves. But ultimately, a host has the power to invite those who are worthy of space and time, of vulnerability and community. And even if they’re not, maybe the shared space will facilitate growth, one curried chickpea at a time.

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