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No Strangers Here

Strengthening our Swarthmorean bonds, one dinner at a time

When I was an English professor at UCLA in the 1990s, I was introduced to a university-sponsored program called Dinners for 12 Strangers. Established in 1968, this program was designed to bring small groups of randomly selected students, faculty, and alumni together over a meal. I attended one of these dinners and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet people and gain a deeper sense of connection within a large university community.

Fast-forward to fall 2015, my first semester at Swarthmore. I was having a wonderful time meeting members of the community on and off campus. As I got to know the College, I was surprised to hear that—even in a setting as small as Swarthmore—we still can feel disconnected from one another. It occurred to me that if the Dinners for Strangers model could work on a campus with tens of thousands of students, it would probably work on our campus of 1,500 students, as well. 

Last November I began hosting our version, called Dinners with Strangers, at Courtney Smith House. We bring together 10–12 people—faculty, staff, students, and local alumni—whose paths wouldn’t ordinarily cross and invite them to engage in wide-ranging conversation. Most guests describe being surprised by the invitation and curious about who their “strangers” will be.

At each dinner (so far there have been four), we strive to bring together students who represent different class years, areas of academic interest, and geographic regions; tenured and nontenured faculty from a range of academic departments and divisions; alumni from different generations; and staff from various areas of campus. So an athletic coach, a sophomore engineering student, a librarian, a psychology professor, a member of dining services, and an artist from the Class of 1961 might meet one another and six other Swarthmoreans over a simple, healthy, delicious meal and enjoy fascinating conversation for a couple of hours. 

These occasions are fun, and the guests are remarkably candid with one another, displaying curiosity, compassion, and empathy. As we gather around the table, I see the full potential of our diverse community come to life.

Guests often admit that they were a little nervous about attending the dinners. Would they be able to sustain conversation with people they don’t know? So far that hasn’t been a problem. Somehow, finding oneself around a dinner table in a homey atmosphere leads people to relax and feel comfortable sharing their thoughts while enjoying others’, too. 

A few months ago I sent a message to the College community inviting staff, faculty, and students to let me know if they would like to either attend or host one of the dinners. We received a large number of enthusiastic responses, and I look forward to expanding the initiative next year. Other members of our community will host local dinners, and we encourage Swarthmoreans around the country and world to consider hosting these events, as well.

Dinners with Strangers is designed to remind us that, even on the campus of a small residential college like Swarthmore, we don’t often make time to meet and share ideas with people with whom we don’t have an obvious connection. Several guests remarked that they enjoyed learning more about people they had seen for years but with whom they never had a substantive conversation. Now, when their paths cross on campus, they feel a deeper connection with each other. 

At its best, the Dinners with Strangers program shows us that, in the words of the poet William Butler Yeats, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” 

—VALERIE SMITH is president of Swarthmore College.