On March 23 President Valerie Smith introduced a new program, Dinner with Strangers, to the entire Swarthmore community. The dinner consists of twelve randomly selected people, composed of staff, faculty, students, and alumni come together to have dinner at the president’s house. The dinners started with people being invited to the dinner by Smith as a sort of trial run. Now the program is opened up to the entire campus to sign up.
Smith experienced a similar program while working at UCLA. The event, called Dinner for 12 Strangers is now 48 years old. Each year there are around 350 dinners, often hosted by alumni around the country. Smith saw the value of the idea and thought a similar program would benefit the Swarthmore community.
Once she arrived on Swarthmore’s campus she enjoyed meeting so many new people and thought the dinner would help others do the same.
“I brought this idea to Swarthmore because I wanted to share that joy with other members of the Swarthmore community,” said Smith.
The program aims to connect people who would not otherwise meet and to help increase the sense of a campus community. Smith believes that the program will allow students to feel a deeper connection to different parts of the Swarthmore community.
So far the program has been successful. Over 200 people have attended a dinner or expressed interest in attending since the original email was sent, and the guests have been excited and enjoyed meeting new people
Associate College Librarian for Research and Instruction Pam Harris attended one of the early dinners. She received her invitation in the mail to attend a dinner in March.
“I just happened to [check my mail] and there was an envelope and it was clearly different than [sic] usual catalogues and interoffice orange offices that I get. It was a proper envelope. So I brought it upstairs to my office and opened it up and it was this great invitation with this mystery dinner, or dinner with twelve strangers but my imagination immediately went wild,” said Harris.
The mystery and excitement added to Harris’s enthusiasm about the night. Smith says that excitement about what the evening will be like and who ‘their’ strangers will be is something many guests have in common, but once at the dinner the conversation flows naturally.
Harris was excited but went into the evening with few expectations. When she arrived she was warmly greeted by Smith.
“Val opened the door and greeted me by name as if we were best friends like ‘hi Pam’ so that was really so welcoming and gracious,” said Harris.
Harris said the conversations at her dinner ranged from what books people are reading to interesting hobbies. Harris enjoyed getting to know people on a more personal level, outside work and the academic world that is more common in the workplace. Since the dinner, Harris has enjoyed seeing ‘her strangers’ around campus.
“Now we greet each other by name and we smile at each other with a knowing little smile and it’s really nice,” said Harris.
Harris recommended this experience to other people, saying that the anticipation and excitement is a nice way to break-up everyday life at Swarthmore. Smith encourages students to sign up, even if they expect some awkwardness.
“Each guest is a little nervous about meeting new people. But we’re just getting together to have fun and enjoy a relaxed evening.” Said Smith, “And they will get a good meal in a homey environment.”
As the program grows, Smith hopes to include dinners around the country at alumnus’ homes. Harris also sees the advantage of including alumni in the event
“I think that for alumni I can see this being a really meaningful way to engage with Swarthmore as it is right now. What’s happening now and what’s important to those of us who are on campus. I can’t think of a better way for them to be involved,” said Harris.
Students who are interested in participating in the dinner can email Presidential Fellow Bruce Easop