Supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, Bowdoin offered three "Dinner with Six Strangers" evenings this year. At each, diners were assigned to tables at random so that they could meet and interact with people they did not already know. As David Treadwell learned, the dinners can be not only cauldrons for forming new friendships, but also great sources of warmth on snowy evenings.
"The dinners are not about meeting six other people with whom you are going to become good friends. They're about offering the chance to make one connection. At this past dinner, I met Jim Ward of the math department. I'm not a math buff, so I would never have gotten the opportunity to speak with him except this one night. We ended up talking for 45 minutes after everyone else had left."
- Steve Gogolak '05
"The snowy weather kept many people from coming, so those of us who did make it were a small, intimate group of hearty, weather-be-damned survivors (except that there was no talk of kicking anyone off the island). I think the weather caused us to bond with each other more than usual. For example, a student whom I did not know and I stayed until after 8:00 p.m. chatting away, even though we both had plenty of other things to do at that busy time of the semester. It was a carpe diem moment for both of us."
- James Ward, Professor of Mathematics
It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night, as I sloshed and slid my way up the horseshoe driveway of the Ladd House to attend a Dinner with Six Strangers. Similar dinners were being held at several locations around campus, but I had requested the site of my former fraternity: Zeta Psi.
As I approached the front door, poignant memories greeted me: pledging that fraternity on my first night on campus; kneeling at that very door to recite the Zeta Psi "prayer" during orientation ("Come all on high to hear my cry, my prayer to enter Zeta Psi..."), boisterous parties, long bridge games, fraternity sing rehearsals, and, most appropriately, Tuesday nights. Tuesdays were guest nights when selected faculty (always Bill Geohegan and sometimes Herbie Brown or Roy LaCasce and others) would come to the house to share a meal (always steak and fries and some other vegetable and always a tasty dessert, such as strawberry shortcake) and sing a few songs (yes, younger graduates, we really did sing songs).
The Task at Hand
My mission that night, though, was not to reminisce; it was to investigate a new version of this familiar experience.
Six tables were set up in the Ladd dining room, and I was assigned to Table Number 3. Because of the bad weather, only four of my strangers/tablemates/soon-to-be-companions made it: Robin Trangsrud '06, a self-designed social justice/human rights major from Minnesota; Ben Cope-Kasten '06, a religion major from Wisconsin; Susan Tananbaum, associate professor of history; and Jane Knox-Voina, professor of Russian.
Our conversation flowed smoothly, moving easily from topic to topic. Jane, who came to Bowdoin in 1976, commented upon her early experiences as one of the College's first women professors. "When I first arrived on campus, the male professors tended to lecture and the female professors tended to lead discussions. The males were addressed as 'Dr.' or 'Professor', and the females were addressed by their first names. But these differences no longer exist." Susan noted that diversity of all types on campus has increased since she came to Bowdoin fifteen years ago. Robin concluded the discussion by saying, "Whether a professor is male or female is just not an issue in the minds of students today."
Ben discussed his "phenomenal" three-week guided educational experience at a rural village in China. Robin described the personal satisfaction derived from helping the new students in her residence hall adjust to college life. When the what-are-you-going-to-do-when-you-graduate topic arose, Susan proffered the sage advice: "Follow your heart."
No Need for Props
The dinner organizers had put a list of questions on each table to turn to if discussions lagged, with suggestions such as "Describe the neighborhood where you grew up," "Would you rather be a snowflake, a water molecule, or a blizzard and why?" and "If you could go anywhere for winter break, where would you go and who would you take with you?" Although any of these discussions might have been
fun, our group needed no help.
Upon Further Reflection
I was especially interested in the reactions of the two students at my table to the dinner, and they graciously offered the following.
Robin: "While I have a certain view of Bowdoin - the culture, the academics, its strengths and weaknesses - my impressions and experiences are very different from a professor who has been here for 30 years... It is also a great opportunity to meet more students. Bowdoin is small, but you get into your routine and the world you create, and there are many interesting people that you wouldn't otherwise meet...I really enjoy hearing about people's different career choices and paths, especially when they aren't linear... The conversation was fantastic."
Ben: "I decided to attend (this was my first time) because my roommate went last year and thought it was a unique and interesting way to get to know people on campus that you see every day but never connect with - and he was right. I loved it. It was pretty amazing the way that each of us at the table, different as we were, chatted so easily over a meal. The forum is casual enough to make it easy to get a sense of the people you're with, but is structured so that discussion actually takes place."
Other Voices, Other Views
Follow-up questions to others who attended the Dinner with Six Strangers that night generated additional positive reflections. For example:
"I wish that events like these would be mandatory so that the Bowdoin community could become even closer knit. If you give someone five minutes of your time to get to know them, chances are that you will get along with them and have one more friendly face on campus to say 'Hi' to."
- Erin Carney '05
"A stranger is a stranger if you make it that way. So there is a choice involved in how we perceive others. If you come with an open mind, you can discover that the label 'stranger' can be immediately transformed to 'friend.' I know that eating with people can be a daunting task, not to mention people you've never seen before. But then to communicate with others in a very human way just affirms that we are all human beings regardless of biological and social differences, and that we can all be friends."
- Ginette Saimprevil '04, Assistant Director of Residential Life
"It was an enjoyable evening, as I got to chat with students in an informal setting - something I don't often get a chance to do. They were an interesting mix: one student had just written an insider's guide to Bowdoin for a publishing company. Another raved about his French teacher, and we spoke French together for a good part of the meal."
- Selby Frame, Associate Director of Academic Communications
"Any interaction with the student body has been an uplifting experience during my nearly five years of employment at Bowdoin, and I am blessed to be stationed in Smith Union, a veritable beehive of energy. To discover that there is enthusiasm in endeavors to assimilate more than academic achievement is wonderful, and proof to me that life teaches what we seek to find in it. There was an air of openness and thirst at the dinner, and diversity was not a distraction. I would recommend this to anyone in the Bowdoin community, for the sense of family and shared desire for enlarging individual knowledge through the experiences of others."
- Steve Keller, Housekeeper, Smith Union
Tim Foster, Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs, appreciates the random selection process used for the dinners. "Students tend to form bonds during the first year with orientation groups, members of their residence hall, athletic teammates and so on. They get comfortable and it's tough to break out and get to know new people. The dinners facilitate new connections and provide a great example of the kinds of inclusive programming that have changed the culture of the campus."
I attended another dinner in February in a different venue (the Howell House, formerly Alpha Delta Phi) to share a meal with a new group of "strangers" and glean a new set of impressions.
The eclectic group at our table included Lisa Hardej '05 (a women studies major/dance minor from Exeter who began dancing when she was two and first learned about Bowdoin from her father, Richard Hardej '72); Joshua Cippel '08 (a go-getter from Cincinnati who plans to enroll in law school at Columbia after three years at Bowdoin as part of a 3-2 plan); Mirna Santos '07 (a future lawyer from Boston drawn to Bowdoin by the Posse Program, a scholarship program for outstanding future leaders from public high schools); Michael Nugent '07 (a sociology major/film minor and Chamber Choir standout from Cincinnati); Steve Smith '08 (a future biological researcher from Mars Hill, Maine); and Margery Logan (a Bowdoin security officer who greatly enjoys interacting with students in an informal off-duty setting).
The conversation started off slowly, but two ice breakers from the list of questions provided gave us a jump start. The question "What did you want to be when you were a kid?" yielded baseball player, ballerina, chef, meteorologist and veterinarian. And "What is your favorite place on campus?" resulted in the Chapel, the fitness center, the sixth floor of Hubbard and Howell House. The loosening up exercises led to interesting discussions on topics ranging from politics to course workload to campus culture.
The Bigger Picture
The Dinner with Six Strangers program was launched in the spring of 2004 with support from a Mellon Foundation grant. Three dinners were held that spring; the dinners I attended were the first two scheduled for the 2004-05 academic year; another was held at the end of April. Everyone on campus receives an invitation to every dinner, and attendance has ranged from 70 to 180 participants.
The Dinner with Six Strangers program is just one of numerous activities supported by the Mellon Foundation since 1998 to foster interaction among students, faculty and staff outside the classroom, especially in the College Houses.
Other examples of Mellon-supported activities include:
Loose Leaves: monthly sessions at which faculty, staff and students share excerpts from their favorite pieces of writing
Notes 'n' Folks: a monthly faculty and staff performance of musical talent and discussion
In-house courses: For example, Professor Ann Kibbie taught a half-credit poetry course that used Ladd House as a classroom
Drop-in lunch for first-years: An opportunity to bring first-year advisors, first-year students and House residents together for advice in course selection
"The Mellon grants have made a world of difference," states Craig Bradley, Dean of Student Affairs. "We've learned that simple programs, such as the Dinner with Six Strangers program, work best to foster meaningful interactions."
"It's possible to have both small tight-knit groups and a strong sense of a campus community," adds Tim Foster. "The dinners and other programs sponsored by the Houses - all of which are open to everyone on campus - help engender the feeling of community on campus."
On a Personal Note
As I was leaving the dinner that December night after that first dinner, I walked into the Ladd living room to look around a bit. Along the mantelpiece above the vast fireplace runs an inscription: "The Ornament of a House is the Friend who Frequents it." And those words brought to mind the many deep friendships I developed at the Zete House and at Bowdoin, friendships that endure to this day. I thought of the way we were back then, in those fraternities, at this College, and the way things are today.
Bowdoin is a very different place, now, and that is good, the way it should be. Happily, great care is being taken to ensure that the best of "the old" carries over into "the new," that preserving a sense of community remains an important goal, that fostering close ties across classes and campus still matters. The Dinners with Six Strangers program is one prime example, one more reason that it can still be said, or sung, that "There is no fairer place beneath the sun."