On a recent Monday night, five first-year students walked down a softly lit, bamboo-lined path to the entrance of the Austin vegan restaurant Casa de Luz. They were joined by St. Edward’s professors Catherine MacDermott and Steve Fletcher, as well as Tony Farmer, an associate director of Residence Life, and Jennifer Dennington, a junior who serves as a mentor to the group. Farmer, a vegan and a Casa de Luz regular, explained that the restaurant doesn’t use menus. Instead, the students would dish their own soup and salad, and the meal of the day would be brought to them later.

The evening was one of several “family dinners” at Austin restaurants and food trucks for students in the Wicked Problems Living Learning Community. In an LLC, students with a shared interest live, take classes, and hang out together. Fletcher coordinates and MacDermott teaches in the LLC, but this evening was purely a low-key social event, a chance to relax away from campus and get to know each other outside of the classroom. Farmer was invited to help the freshmen meet other staff members at St. Edward’s. Fletcher explains, “I designed these family dinners as a way to build community between faculty, staff and students in the LLC. They bridge the gap between academic and social pursuits for our first-year students in a more personal way.”

The group claimed a table outside, and soon a server brought the main meal: avocado sushi, steamed kale with tahini dressing, beans, and a medley of cauliflower and carrots.

The conversation ranged from the Astros’ recent World Series triumph to Fletcher’s lip-synch performance in the fundraising variety show the LLC had cohosted for Hurricane Harvey relief (he sang a mashup including songs from Nicki Minaj, Beyonce and the movie “Frozen”).

Fletcher glanced around the table. “I’m sensing that 30 percent of us love this meal, and 70 percent are ‘eh’ about it.”

“I could eat this sushi every day!” said Samantha Villarreal ’21. A couple of her classmates slid their sushi onto her plate.

Fletcher noticed Alejandra Garcia ’21 was hardly eating and looked quizzically at her.

“I tend to eat really greasy food, so this is new to me,” she said. “But my mom would be proud I’m eating vegetables.”

“Try the dressing with the kale,” Farmer urged. “It’s made of crushed sesame seeds. Hey, everybody, raise your hand if you want dessert. There’s a pecan pie thing and a fruity thing.” All the hands went up, and Farmer headed inside.

Someone posed a challenge: “I want to know what foods the professors felt awkward eating for the first time.”

Fletcher considered. “Ethiopian food. You rip off pieces of the bread and mop up the food with it. And everyone sits on the floor.”

MacDermott chimed in. “I was in France to teach at our partner campus. I ordered beef tartare, and I didn’t realize it was raw meat. Here came this ground beef, with butter and oats, like they expected me to make my own meatloaf.” Everyone groaned.

Farmer reappeared with his hands full of dessert plates and put one in front of Garcia. “You will love this peach cobbler ― I guarantee it,” he said. She took a careful bite and nodded, approvingly.

As the students finished eating, MacDermott asked about their Thanksgiving plans, and Farmer encouraged them to consider becoming campus leaders next year. They headed back to campus ― filled with the momentum to create new connections away from the table.