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How I got students to talk about hard things on a divided Stanford University campus

Meaningful Dialogue 101: Stanford graduate student Shreyas Lakhtakia is creating a space for students to find common ground.

An illustration of four people chatting in a room, viewed through a smartphone-like frame, in a two-tone color scheme.
AI illustration by Clark Miller

By Shreyas Lakhtakia

“Koreans are my favorite people,” Abhinav, who was not Korean, started. Oh no, I thought. Eager to prevent a sweeping racial generalization from getting him canceled—and me, by association—I wondered whether to change the topic. 

We were talking in my dorm room as part of a conversation project I started three years ago called Beagle Cafe, which has taken Stanford’s campus by storm. It brings together students from across the university for unstructured conversations with only one rule: no small talk. Since then, the Beagle Cafe has grown well beyond my expectations. When I post new openings for these small group conversations, they are usually all taken within an hour.

At a time when Stanford is in the news for alleged hate crimes, mobbed guest speakers and increasing polarization, this might sound like a potential disaster. But after inviting more than 300 strangers to my home over three years in small groups, I’ve learned that nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s not our campuses that are broken, but our mass communication platforms, which don’t allow for nuance or uniqueness. The price of the infinite scale of tweets is a finiteness to the discussion they permit. We need to talk. And we need better places to talk within. In trying to create such a space with the Beagle Cafe. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Move beyond your first impression

Abhinav had just moved from India and didn't tiptoe around conversations about race like Americans often do. I eventually mustered the courage to ask him why Koreans are his favorite people. He talked passionately about living in South Korea for a few years. Just 0.6% of the roughly 5% of foreigners in South Korea are Indian, which made his vantage point rare. He talked earnestly about his time there and described asking for directions near a subway station during rush hour and how, instead of simply pointing him somewhere, a stranger actually walked him to the place he was looking for, missing their train in the process. His heartwarming stories left me embarrassed about my judgemental first impression.

A Beagle Cafe conversation typically lasts two hours or more. Over that time, the most common question I ask is: Why?—why do you feel this way, or why did you act a certain way? Getting to the why takes time, the kind of time we don’t often give to voices that don’t immediately appeal to us in the era of endless scrolling and instant gratification.

Share stories, not talking points

It’s not just Abhinav––everyone has a story that shapes how they think. Online, we feel immense pressure to affirm our affiliations with anonymous crowds, none of whom share our life stories. I believe this is partly what makes online discourse so unpleasant.

Sharing personal opinions, stories and experiences can often break the mold of tribalism, teaching us about people’s complex backgrounds. One of my favorite stories from Beagle Cafe is about how Kasra, an Iranian graduate student, courted and married his Saudi Arabian wife. Until very recently, the two nations had no ties at all and leaders who were at each other's throats, making it impossible for their families to meet. Their wedding was like a diplomatic deal, brokered in Turkey and sealed in Canada.

My decision to host five strangers in my 438-square-foot apartment for the first time was deliberate. Meeting in person in the intimacy of my home fosters vulnerability and respectfulness, encouraging people to say what they truly feel, not what they’re expected to say.

I’ve also learned that we’re more willing to listen to others when they are able to open up. When I surveyed the first 50 guests, I was surprised to learn that what most people loved about Beagle Cafe was having a space to listen to, rather than just share, new perspectives. This is a far cry from the kind of divisive discourse that makes headlines.

Seek dialogue, not debate

At the Beagle Cafe, we avoid framing conversations as debates, because the point is not to "win,” as it often is when we debate. The point is to let people share the stories, experiences and learnings that shape their beliefs. Discussions happen organically as people share stories rather than focus on prescribed topics. When we let topics converge on things that matter to people, the conversation is more sincere. This creates implicit trust that allows a level of sincerity in conversation that public spaces or orchestrated discussions, like panels, do not.

In one conversation last year, we discovered that one guest was a student of Istanbul’s art history and another had spent significant time in the Turkish capital on business. This led to a nuanced conversation on the upcoming Turkish elections. Other conversations have revolved around regulating artificial intelligence, losing a parent and leaving a religious faith. And yes, sometimes we talk about Israel and Palestine. But the distinction is that this forum doesn’t exist to only debate our differences. Too often, forums for dialogue only spring to action once there’s a community fissure, like war in the Middle East––by contrast, the Beagle Cafe has been a constant community feature for three years.

By creating a private space for constant conversation, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from the experiences of students from diverse academic backgrounds, nations around the world and every major faith. This has been the great privilege of my time at Stanford—and indeed, the source of my greatest education here.

Shreyas Lakhtakia is the creator of Beagle Cafe and a Stanford graduate student working in artificial intelligence.

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