Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Weekly Gatherings Help Nourish River Hawks’ Souls
By Ed Brennen
Plastics Engineering Asst. Prof. Amir Ameli noticed something unusual when he returned to his second-floor office at Ball Hall on a recent Friday afternoon: the mouthwatering aroma of slow-cooked lamb seasoned with sweet paprika, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon, stewing gently with garlic, yellow onions, carrots, baby spinach and chickpeas.
“I couldn’t miss it,” says Ameli, who happily helped himself to a bowl of the No-Sear Lamb and Chickpea Stew, made by Plastics Engineering Department Chair Carol Barry’s husband, before mingling with two dozen students, faculty and staff in the conference room adjacent to his office.
“It was a nice way of getting together with everyone,” Ameli says.
Which is exactly what Assoc. Teaching Prof. of Geotechnical Engineering Edward Hajduk ’95, ’99, ’06 had in mind when he helped launch Friday Soup Lunch two years ago.
“When we got back from COVID, we needed to do something to start rebuilding the student body,” says Hajduk, who met with Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Coordinator Michelle Riccio to brainstorm ideas.
Hajduk remembered that when he was a graduate student in the Francis College of Engineering, his mentor, Prof. Samuel Paikowsky, would give students $30 to cook a dish from their ethnic heritage that could be served at a monthly group get-together.
Hajduk and Riccio wanted to try it with the department’s current graduate students, but no one took them up on the offer. Undeterred, Hajduk started making soup in his slow cooker at home and bringing it to the office every Friday to share with others.
“It took off from there,” says Hajduk, who created a Friday Soup Lunch website and began emailing invitations to the weekly lunches — written as parodies of classic song lyrics, a la Weird Al Yankovic.
“Ed’s song emails are really fun,” says Janna Jobel, a postdoctoral research associate in biomedical engineering who works with Hajduk in the Francis College’s new proctored study hall, called “Splash.” “He’s great at building community. Everyone feels welcome.”
Matthew Kotfila, a junior civil engineering major from Chelmsford, Massachusetts, agrees.
“I come every week,” he says. “It’s a nice way to meet people in other departments, and the soup’s always good. I don’t always bring lunch on Fridays, so this helps keep the brain operating.”
For structural engineering Ph.D. student Koosha Raisi, Friday Soup Lunch is a welcome break from the research lab.
“When we come here, we let everything go. We become more familiar with everyone and, of course, taste different cuisines,” says Raisi, who is from Iran. “Diversity and getting to know people — that’s a nice thing in academia.”
As the lunches became more popular last fall, Hajduk and Riccio decided to cap the semester with the “Souper Bowl,” a soup competition that drew around 75 spoon-toting River Hawks to Southwick Hall Room 240. A team from Student Activities and Leadership — Programming Coordinator DeReginald Walker made a baked potato soup and Asst. Director Michael Kennedy made accompanying biscuits — bested a field of eight soup chefs to capture the inaugural Golden Ladle, a trophy designed by Lawrence Lin MakerSpace Asst. Manager John Connery.
This semester, they’ve taken Friday Soup Lunch on the road for the “Spring 2023 Vibrancy Tour,” as Hajduk calls it, with stops in seven departments across campus, including Academic Affairs, Chemical Engineering, University Relations and Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
Abby Cate, a junior civil engineering major from Townsend, Massachusetts, has rarely missed a Friday Soup Lunch. She learned about them as a work-study student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering during her sophomore year.
“It shows how much they want us to not only succeed, but enjoy a moment of the day,” Cate says during a chili-themed lunch hosted by University Relations at the Wannalancit Business Center. “We’re so stressed all week, so they make sure we have time to relax and socialize with each other. It definitely goes a long way.”
“When a professor is so invested in student success, it makes students want to do better,” adds Owen Williams, a senior civil engineering major from Plymouth, Massachusetts.
To cap off the Spring 2023 Vibrancy Tour, the organizers planned another soup cook-off for April 21 at Southwick Hall. The name for this contest? “The One Soup to Rule Them All Competition.”