Lively dinner party conversations usually include a great story-teller, a curious group of friends, a common interest, or a diverse range of opinions.
On Feb. 28, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is inviting the citizens of San Antonio to dinner, with the goal of sparking just those kinds of engaging conversations. The 17th annual Great Conversation! event brings together UTSA faculty and community leaders to discuss passions, research, and other topics of interest in a dinner party-style setting. Proceeds from the event benefit the UTSA Honors College.
When Ricardo Romo took office as president of UTSA in 1999, he and his wife, Harriett, decided to make some improvements on the existing President’s Distinguished Lecture
Series. Harriett Romo, an educator herself, felt the format limited engagement.
What really sticks with people, Harriett Romo said, is interaction.
“I decided it would be really fun to have something that was like a class discussion,” she told the Rivard Report.
This year table hosts include Fr. David Garcia, who will discuss the World Heritage designation; chef Johnny Hernandez, who will talk about serving tacos to the Obamas; Kinitra Brooks, an associate English professor at UTSA who created a class based on Beyoncé’s album Lemonade; and the Rivard Report’s Robert Rivard, who will lead a discussion on community journalism.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), who is running to unseat Taylor, will each host a table. Nirenberg’s topic will be “The Next Million: Will San Antonio Be Bigger, Better, or Both?” Taylor’s topic has not been announced.
Former Spurs forward Bruce Bowen will host a table, too.
A University of Houston fundraiser that featured a series of conversations served as the Romos’ inspiration, so they teamed up with Honors College President Anne Eisenberg to do something similar. The first Great Conversations! dinner spanned 20 tables. Local, longtime businesswoman Rosemary Kowalski, who will be a table host at this year’s event, provided the catering.
The event raised only about $10,000, but Romo considered it a success.
“We knew we had something great, but we weren’t making a lot of money,” she said.
In an effort to help generate more funds, she and her husband reached out to the community. Romo credits leaders like Lionel Sosa, Debbie Montford, and Tracy Wolff for helping generate enthusiasm and widen participation.
The event has grown significantly, raising $1 million for the university since 2000. In 2014, it raised $171,000, in 2015 $277,000, and in 2016 $196,000. The event committee, comprised largely of UTSA alumni, has received $76,000 in commitments so far. Aramark, the catering service for UTSA, will provide dinner free of charge to minimize overhead costs.
The event’s proceeds fund study abroad scholarships and subsidize expenses for students who earn fellowships in Washington, D.C.
Ricardo Romo’s active support for Great Conversation! was instrumental in growing the event. The Romos have hosted tables every year and hope to continue after the university president retires in August and Harriett Romo hands over the reins of the event to Sean Kelly, dean of the Honors College.
“We hope the new president will continue to support it,” she said.
Ricardo Romo’s role as a historian with UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures should offer plenty to talk about in coming years, though one of the most fun aspects of Great Conversation! is the sometimes unexpected topic selection.
Table hosts, whether they are professors or community members, are free to choose their topic. While some stick to their areas of expertise – such as Bowen discussing life after the Spurs – others branch out into less obvious passions and interests. One year, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff discussed Texas Hold’em poker. This year, Ricardo Romo will discuss the popularity of the play Hamilton, which he saw last spring.
A few years ago, the Romos decided that Honors College students should be more than just beneficiaries of the event. They seated them at the various tables, and encouraged them to join conversations with their professors, civic leaders, and fellow citizens in attendance. Participation has had its desired effect, Harriett Romo said.
“We’ve seen them grow in their social skills,” she said.
Like the students, many attendees are apprehensive at first, wondering what they will be able to contribute to conversations on topics such as archaeology.
“They think they need to be an expert,” Harriett said. “That’s not the case.”
The table hosts are coached on how to draw the whole table into conversation and how to keep things lively and engaging.
In the past, staff has had to usher people out of the building long after the event ended, Harriet said, as conversations continued far beyond the official program.
“There’s not a lot of fundraisers where that happens,” she added. “I think people are eager to have conversations.”