Dinner With 12 Strangers

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This week, I went to the Alumni Association sponsored event, “Dinner with 12 Strangers” to find out how the dinner began and what it’s really like to eat dinner with 12 people I’ve never met before.

I was in a small dining room at the Ohio University Inn, making conversation with people I’ve never met before. There were two hosts and seven OU students, including myself, sitting at the table. Several of our fellow would-be guests couldn’t make the dinner that night, so “Dinner with 12 Strangers” became “Dinner with 9 Strangers” instead.

I’ve heard about the dinner before, either from friends who have gone to the dinner in the past, or through the emails sent out each month by the Alumni Association letting students know to sign up for the event ASAP before the limited number of spots filled up.

I decided to sign up for the dinner on February 22, curious about the whole idea of the event. According to Katrina Heilmeier, the associate director of campus relations at the Alumni Association, the dinner started in the early 2000s and is a trend that’s been picking up at different colleges around the United States.

Katrina explained the idea of the dinner by saying, “You go and meet with alumni and you meet with, you know, alumni that might be interesting to you and the idea is that you come to dinner as 12 strangers and you leave with 11 friends.” Meeting alumni isn’t the only benefit of the dinner, you get to connect with fellow students as well. Heilmeier said the dinner is “a neat opportunity where the connections happen not only between the alumni and the students but also between the students and each other.”

In order to find hosts for the dinner, the Alumni Association opens up a forum that allows any alumni to sign up as a host. There are some steps the alum needs to go through, however, like being interviewed by Heilmeier and some of her interns.

Katrina was able to tell me about when the dinners started and some of the benefits for having them, but there was no way for her to tell me how I’d feel walking into a room full of people I didn’t know and having dinner with them. That was something I’d have to experience for myself.

The hosts for the dinner I was attending were David Brightbill and Gerry Spencer. David was a member of the class of 1970 and graduated Ohio University with a BSED, and Gerry received her MBA from OU in 1988.

I sat next to Gerry at one end of the table, and David was on the opposite end on the other side. The table was small so no one had to strain to hear what the other was saying. To my surprise, the conversation flowed continuously throughout the entire dinner. I enjoyed listening to what everyone had to say, but one question kept popping into my head during the event, why did these people decide to host?

When David was asked this question, he responded, “I really enjoy students, I think it’s so neat. They’re so smart and they do so many neat things and I just enjoy being around them.” David has hosted three dinners with Gerry within the past four years.
Gerry and I talked a lot during the dinner, but she suggested that I interview David instead of her. Gerry is a loyal alum and follows all things that are Ohio University, but David has been involved with OU as more than just a student. David was on the alumni board for three years, the board of trustees for seven years and is currently on the Dean’s Advisory Committee for health sciences and professions.

A lot has changed since either of the hosts had been students here. David told us about the curfews women used to have when he went to school here and about the little ash trays all the classrooms had because students were allowed to smoke in their classes at the time. Gerry was born and raised in Ireland, and spoke about the adjustments she had to make when she moved to the U.S., like learning and understanding our different terms and catchphrases for things.

Although it can be intimidating walking into a room full of strangers, I quickly became comfortable talking to everyone. The age groups of students ranged from freshmen to graduate students, but all being students at OU, we bonded over things like complaining about the temperature of the buildings we had classes in and the difficulty of our courses.

Nervous for the event, I walked into the room worried we would sit there for the entire dinner going in-between small talk and awkward silence.

There was hardly any silence.

Questions and answers flew back and forth between the guests the entire time. The entire hour and a half went by quickly and the dinner was over in the blink of an eye. The dinner I almost didn’t want to go to, ended up being a dinner I didn’t want to leave.

From the class of 1970 to the class of 2020, we might have all had different majors and different interests, but there was one thing we had in common for sure: our love for Ohio University.