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Dinner for 12 Strangers

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Over the weekend, I participated in the UCLA tradition "Dinner for 12 Strangers." The tradition began over 40 years ago with just two dinners. In 2011, there were over 290 dinners and 3,100 participants. The dinners are an informal gathering of students, faculty and alumni over delicious food and stimulating conversation.

I had known about this tradition back when I was in high school and this was always on my UCLA bucket list. As a Dinner for 12 Strangers first-timer, I was anxious and hopeful for what the next few hours would be like. When I pulled into the host's driveway in Hermosa Beach, I looked in awe at the stunning beach home neighborhood. One of the hosts greeted us with a wide-smile and led us to the top deck of her home. There, we watched the California sunset. I was astounded by the beautiful view and wondered if someday I will be fortunate enough to have a home with this view.

The night began with the ice breaker "celebrity" in which each person is labeled with a famous character name. I had asked if my name was an athlete and given the confused faces of some of the girls, I instantly knew the name. I was the famous former UCLA athlete and NBA Hall-of-Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The two hosts met on the first day of math lecture. They sat next to each other and are still friends to this day. They were there for weddings, birthdays and births. In college, they worked at the university residential halls and on-campus cafes. They lived in on-campus and off-campus housing. They participated in college traditions and one host was in a sorority. UCLA is a dry campus and we learned that back then, sororities and fraternities weren't dry. As we listened to their stories about what UCLA was like in the late-1970s and early-1980s, we were astounded by how much the university has changed and how much has stayed the same.

The village where UCLA students dined, Westwood Village, had completely different eateries compared to the In'N'Out and Diddy Riese that students flock to today. We asked how labs were done when they were in college and learned about college life with typewriters. We told them about how many buildings have changed names, the undie run tradition during finals week and new residential halls built on campus.

Through the night, I started to reflect back on my college experience and wondered about the fabulous friendships I have made in the past. The hosts emphasized that the people you meet in your life, whether you meet them in high school or in college, will be your friends for the rest of your life. With less than a year left in college, I wondered if someday I will form lasting friendships with the people who will be in my future lecture classes.

With technology and Facebook, it's simple to keep in touch but an impersonal 'hey' or 'what's up' seems to lose its meaning over time. On the car ride back to UCLA, we discussed friend requests on Facebook. One guy mentioned the awkward moment when you are Facebook friends with someone but over time, you lose touch and soon forget how you even met.

At the end of the night, I was stuffed with delicious homemade Mexican food, a doggy bag of homemade brownies and thoughts of what I will say when I will host a dinner sometime in the future. At the beginning of the night, we were students, faculty and alumni with different lives, interests and majors. By the end of the night, our lives came together with a shared memory and a shared experience.

Dinner for 12 Strangers is a program that exists at many university campuses across the United States. Sign up for a college tradition, do something new and give it a try. I did and I can't wait for the dinners I will participate in next year.