Fostering Friendship: International Coffee Hour

Heinrich di Santo, who presented on his native Italy in the International Coffee Hour series.
Rebecca A. Eckland

For several years, TMCC has hosted International Coffee Hour, a discussion series that celebrates the culture and diversity of our students, faculty, staff and community. Although the series has moved to a virtual forum given the ongoing pandemic, according to series organizer Virag Nikolics, that hasn’t diminished the quality of International Coffee Hour. “The fact that we have been on Zoom hasn’t taken away the spirit of these events, so I think actually, they have worked well online,” she said. “I love the fact that this semester, we have representatives from different sectors of our community: staff, students, community members, then we will also have faculty. It will be a colorful series.”

In a world with an increasing number of Zoom conferences that can easily connect us professionally–and personally–to a global community, learning more about diverse perspectives, cultures and countries is undoubtedly useful. This semester this is especially true with presentations that will offer multiple perspectives on the same country and culture, as well as variations of cultural identity we carry due to family history and heritage, the places in which we grew up, and that we are able to visit. 

The series began on Wednesday, Feb. 9 with a presentation by TMCC Sociology Professor Marynia Giren-Navarro who presented her native Poland. “When people talk about Europe, they only think about Western Europe, [but Navarro] really emphasized that Poland is a Central European country based on its location, as well as its customs and traditions,” said Nikolics.

These and other insights are what you’ll gain by popping in for a mid-day excursion to another part of the world. Bring your coffee, your questions and your curiosity to this semester-long series that truly brings the world into your office, wherever that may be.

When In Rome

International Coffee Hour presenter Heinrich di Santo’s life changed dramatically when he came to the U.S. last year to pursue a Ph.D in Plant Physiology at UNR. It wasn’t his first time to the U.S., however—in 2018 he had an opportunity to do a 3-month internship at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) researching plant physiology. The experience introduced di Santo to a new lifelong passion: hiking. “Every weekend, I would go to the national parks–Yosemite, Death Valley, Yellowstone, to name a few–because I discovered my passion for hiking, which I didn’t have before coming to the U.S. It was just wonderful,” he said. 

Although di Santo would return to Italy after the conclusion of his three-month internship, he returned again in 2021 to pursue a Ph.D., also at UNR. In addition to continuing his education, the United States also had an additional surprise in store for him: within months, di Santo met his future wife. The unexpected connection was something he finds remarkable about the United States. “You know one of the great things about this country? If you look around you can see the most mixed combinations in couples. You never in any way don’t feel like you don’t belong here because you are different. There are so many different people anyway, it makes you feel comfortable,” he said.

Of German-Italian descent, di Santo was born in Germany but grew up in a city near Rome. Like many presentations in the International Coffee Hour series, di Santo’s perspective is at once public and private, offering insights into the rich history and culture of one of the world’s most influential cities, while also adding his own particular flair. “I have never felt more Italian or more German,” he said, explaining his somewhat complicated heritage of being born on German soil while growing up outside of Rome. 

A part of this comes from how history was taught to him growing up. “In Italy, our history classes are really focused on the Romans and ancient Greek culture. You get a picture of how it was before and how it arrived here,” he said, explaining that the influence of the Roman Empire had a lasting impact on the world, and not just in Italy.

While explaining the political evolution of Rome from a kingdom to a republic and finally an empire, he paused to explain the vast scope of the political influence of what was one of Europe’s first dictators, Julius Caesar. “We even have Caesars Palace in Las Vegas,” he said, pointing out one reminder among many lingering details of Rome that have spread much farther than the empire itself. 

Roma caput mundi—which means Rome is the capital of the world—isn’t just an expression of national pride. Rome’s place at the center of western civilization is evidenced in the spectacle of gladiator and other war simulations that were hosted in the Colosseum and also the Circus Maximus, but also the Vatican—the heart of the Catholic religion—which is located in Rome. So too, the value of art in public spaces, such as the famous fountain, the Fontana di Trevi

And while di Santo’s presentation revealed that not every Italian watches soccer matches (gasp!), there are certain commonalities that those in the culture share. One, said di Santo, is pasta. “Italians in Italy eat pasta every day at lunch, not at dinner,” he said while outlining some of the country’s more popular pasta dishes–and some of di Santo’s favorite dishes–which include spaghetti alla carbonara and spaghetti al pomodoro, dishes that di Santo reminded participants that typical Italian fare doesn’t necessarily have a lot of ingredients, but the ones it does have are of very high quality. 

And while pasta for lunch may be a relic of his Italian heritage that remains a constant in di Santo’s life, moving to the United States offered him many new and exciting changes. He began researching–and growing—melons as a part of his Ph.D. research, something he never did in his home country. While some cultural differences were a challenge to get accustomed to, di Santo feels at home in the United States. 

“At first, I missed having the cultural feeling of a place like you do in Rome [with all the reminders in the art, architecture and buildings all around you], but I don’t feel that anymore. I also had the opportunity to meet my wife, which was amazing. [Traveling and living in another country has taught me] you never know what to expect in life,” he said.

Unexpected Friendships

On Wednesday, April 6, International Coffee Hour will feature a three-part presentation on South Korea. Co-presenters include TMCC International Student Bong Soo Eun, TMCC Interim Executive Director of Retention Support YeVonne Allen and TMCC Counseling Center Coordinator Camille Vega. Each presenter has a unique relationship with the country and culture of South Korea. 

“One aspect of International Coffee Hour that I love is connecting people from the same country or similar cultural heritage,” said Nikolics. “Camile, YeVonne and Bong Soo all have a Korean heritage that’s important to them all, so not only are they presenting together, but they are also developing a friendship.” 

Whether you’re interested in culture, diversity or you want to be a part of a community in which unexpected friendships can form, this semester-long lecture series will open your eyes and your heart to the paradox of culture: that it can at once be so vast, and yet also the thing that brings us together. 

For more information about International Coffee Hour visit the TMCC Event Calendar for specific presentations and dates, contact International Student Services at 775-337-5605.