Fear, Failure, and Catastrophe -or- How to Talk with Strangers (And Even People You Think You Know)

“A person is a person through other persons.” (Ubuntu philosophy)

In March of 2016, close to sundown, about ten miles into a return trip from Mt. Rushmore with my family, I noticed a young woman sitting on an embankment about fifty feet from the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I pulled over, backed up, rolled down the window, and proceeded to have a conversation with her. She had had a fight with her boyfriend, a man I had seen walking up the road some three miles earlier. The argument had something to do with getting kicked out of the car in which they’d hitched a ride, and she had just been sitting there for the past forty minutes or so, not sure what to do or where to go. 

After a few minutes, my wife and I convinced her to let us give her a ride. My wife squeezed in the back with our two kids, aged six and eight, and the young woman got in. We did a U-turn and headed back toward the town of Keystone. While we drove slowly, we slowly talked. And when we saw her boyfriend up ahead a quarter mile, I asked if she wanted to pull over or to keep driving. She wanted to pull over.

This time, she had the conversation through the rolled down window with someone she thought she knew. And after a few minutes, she coaxed her boyfriend to squeeze into the front seat of an already packed car, and we drove the rest of the way to the tiny town.  When we dropped them off with some food to get them through the day, they thanked us several times and walked off with their arms around one another. 

As we pulled back onto the road, I turned to our kids, who had been silently observing the entire episode, and said, “Do you think that was a good idea or not?” And for the next half hour or so, we discussed the answers. 

Social interaction in the United States has suffered from both the well-intentioned warnings we offer young children to stay clear of strangers and the self-serving vilification of others that has contributed to the current political climate. To make things worse, the cultivation of fear of “the other,” is further fertilized by the default social self-isolation made possible by the bubbles of smartphones and social media. And yet, what do we lose when we don’t talk with strangers?  

Students will work with a team of educators specializing in, among other things, collaboration, intercultural communication, resilience, and civil discourse to follow a path of becoming more aware of themselves, of others, and of the contexts of their interactions in order to take valuable and well-considered risks and talk with strangers.


  • Students will learn and practice skills in a highly interactive classroom environment.
  • Students will apply these skills in the real world with various assignment prompts.
  • Students will record and share their experiences using everything from simple field notes to fleshed-out narratives.

Activity Period: Fall 2021 semester.

Meets: Tuesdays from 4:00-5:30pm for the fall 2021 semester

Students Admitted: 15