There was no food on the menu. Instead, five thought-provoking questions lay on a table in the Frist Multipurpose Room. “What have you rebelled against?” one of them read.
Princeton Muse is a new club that “aims to create a forum for open, meaningful conversation” by bringing strangers together for special meals and study breaks, according to the group’s Facebook page. Modeled after the Oxford Muse Society at Oxford University in England, students pair up in monthly discussions to talk personal and philosophical issues over a conversation menu from the Oxford Muse Foundation. The club is the latest student-run initiative that fosters interaction among strangers on campus, following projects like PrincetonLunch and Friendsy.
Princeton Muse founders Kathy Sun ’14 and Lindie Wang ’14 first encountered the concept while studying abroad last fall. After attending an Oxford Muse event, they said they thought they could bring its success back home. “We felt like there was a very common but unspoken desire on campus to have more of these kinds of [meaningful, open] conversations,” Sun said.
The group held an open house last month with mini-sessions to give participants a taste of the longer conversations to come.
Quentin Becheau ’17 said he joined because he was drawn to the idea of genuine interaction. “As a freshman coming in, at first it’s like, [you're] really excited about this place, and then I started realizing that people are busy and tend to have very small talks all the time. And I was just getting frustrated with having so many people with such huge potential around me, but just keeping it at a very, very shallow level, like, ‘Ah hi, how are you? What major are you thinking?’ ”
Becheau said conversation flowed naturally at his first session. “In the end, we just ended up talking everything from justice to utilitarianism to our perspectives on family.”
Speaking with someone you may never meet again relieves the pressure of watching what you say, according to Jacky Cheng ’14. “It was really interesting to see how someone from another background thought about these issues, and at the same time it was a medium for us to express ourselves in a way that felt comfortable,” he said.
Students said they learned more about their own perspectives by sharing them with strangers. They also reported finding people more complex than they expected and improving their own listening skills. “It really forces you to make that extra step and be, be as nice and genuine as you could be,” Becheau said.
The reception of the club has exceeded the founders’ expectations. According to member Nate Cope ’17, about 30 students showed up to the first session.
“Everyone has been very excited and genuine and enthusiastic about it, and that’s kind of inspiring for both of us in terms of seeing that the campus feels similarly about something that we really enjoy,” Wang said.
The group recently obtained recognition from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students. As the club kicks off, Sun and Wang are assembling a board to help raise money, build a website and host sessions at local venues in town. They said they also hope to partner with other student organizations for themed gatherings. The first full conversation event will most likely take place in late October or early November.
While other initiatives like PrincetonLunch were built on a similar premise, Wang said that Muse fulfills a unique role on campus. Getting lunch with someone involves a lot of small talk, Wang said, whereas the primary focus of Muse is to promote thoughtful conversation that can also establish new relationships.
“It would be great if you made a friend tonight,” Wang explained. “But really what you’re trying to do is, like, universalize your experiences and learn from other experiences so that you’re able to walk away with something new.”