You might be skeptical if a girl you barely knew approached you on Locust Walk or on Facebook and asked you to show up to a loft in Center City to have meaningful discussion for three hours with 20 strangers. But so far it’s been working pretty well for College junior Serena Bian.
Bian started the project, “Space,” in April after interviewing friends, acquaintances and strangers for fun in a process she calls “mind-mapping.” She noticed a common narrative of students wishing they could form deeper connections and friendships across different social circles.
She came up with the idea of Space as a gathering to foster connections and understanding among students across different social groups. It is not a club, it has no social media presence or brand and it is not affiliated with any Penn organization.
Participants will receive an email invitation asking them to show up exactly on time. When they arrive, there is only one rule: No small talk. Following a short meditation, the people are asked to sit in front of someone with unbroken eye contact for five minutes, which Bian says helps them “learn to be vulnerable and uncomfortable sometimes.”
Then, Bian will start off discussion with a story to get conversation flowing, but she stays silent for the rest of the time afterwards.
“At Penn we’re so quick to get into our groups and be defined by what we’re involved with,” Bian said. “We’re all just so interesting, but I feel like the spaces and the culture that we are in doesn’t allow for these interesting parts of us to come out sometimes.”
She decided to hold the space off campus to help students remove themselves mentally from Penn, as well as physically.
“I’ve noticed how I feel in different physical spaces on Penn’s campus, and a lot of times I don’t feel great when I’m in Huntsman and I interact differently,” Bian said.
She at first had the idea to hold the group in a warehouse, but soon found a loft in Center City on Airbnb that she felt was more conducive to friendly interactions than a space at Penn.
She invited people she met on Locust or messaged distant acquaintances. Although she told them only vague details about conversations with new people, Bian found most to be “surprisingly receptive.” Around 20 people gathered when she held the first meeting on a Tuesday evening in April.
“[We] just had really amazing conversations that were deep, vulnerable, real,” Bian said. “I think like a lot of solidarity is built in these spaces and connections are made but also just in understanding that other people go through the same things or that other people are so interesting.”
After the first meeting, the owner of the Airbnb apartment was so impressed that he offered to let Bian use the space for free, she said. Since then, Bian has held about a dozen more gatherings, with anywhere from five to 20 people at each event. She held several groups while she was in San Francisco this summer and hopes to expand further by involving graduate students and people from the city of Philadelphia.
Penn’s Student Wellness communications coordinator and 2016 College graduate Ben Bolnick attended one of the meetings, which ended up going half an hour past the intended three hours.
“Honestly we could have been there all night, talking,” Bolnick said. “It was just a very, very, meaningful, deep, personal, enlightening discussion that I think everybody got a lot out of.”
“Every single time it’s just like I’m blown away by just the depth of people,” Bian said. “And it really just humbles me that I’m surrounded by so many amazing peers.”
Bolnick felt that the group filled a gap on Penn’s campus.
“I think it’s tough to find space where it’s so natural to have such meaningful life discussions,” Bolnick said. “But something that all people need is to reflect, to discuss, to flesh out ideas and concepts and struggles with other human beings. And sometimes we just don’t get that often enough here, so I think that program really is one step towards getting us to have those kind of necessary discussions.”
Bian hopes to continue the project by holding themed events like a TED talk night and speakeasy night, or by creating intentional spaces for people who already know each other.
“I think there’s just this big desire for us all to connect with one another in deeper more meaningful ways,” Bian said. “And this is just a way that I’ve found to be successful.”