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Hot on Campus | November 6, 2012

Never meet a stranger


Students foster friendliness on campus by encouraging classmates to greet people they pass by


On a recent early morning walk across campus, Texas A&M University sophomore Bryan Kelly passed a police officer going in the other direction. Usually situations like this end in a half smile, a curt nod or awkward silence absent any eye contact. But as Kelly met the officer, he bellowed out a friendly greeting.

"Howdy!" he said, in response to the officer's own salutation. Although he wasn't a graduate of Texas A&M, the officer knew the school's tradition for greeting people with the signature phrase. On the College Station campus, students who don't say "howdy" to people they meet are in the minority. Although greeting strangers with such an outburst of friendliness may be counterintuitive, students say it's one of the little things that builds a sense of campus community.

The tradition of greeting strangers and friends alike with a bellowing "howdy" makes campus feel like a much smaller, friendlier place, Kelly said: "I think it would be great if all campuses had a greeting like that."

At the University of Maryland in College Park, students have begun efforts to set a similar precedent for friendly interactions on campus. Student-run organization Project Hello Stranger uses social media and hosts activities to encourage students to "show their soft and friendly side." So far, the group has made appearances on campus with balloons, t-shirt sales, and even offers of hugs to strangers to help make campus a friendlier place.

"As in many cities, we are often forced into building a wall around us due to the competition that we are used to in school and work, which permeates through our lives," said Omeed Sizar, one of the project's founders. "Project Hello Stranger wants to see every student on campus smiling and greeting one another without the awkward stigma."

But the effectiveness of efforts like Project Hello Stranger depend largely on the culture of the university, said Lauren Hull, a senior at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Such efforts may inspire students to act friendlier towards one another, but many people are set in their ways and choose not to interact with others, she said.

Although Wake Forest does not currently have a formal effort to increase friendliness on campus, Hull is an individual ambassador for the precedent of greeting a stranger with a smile and a hello, something she does frequently on her walking commute to campus and in between classes. The stigma against greeting strangers is often rooted in insecurity, Hull said. Some people don't want to put themselves out there to be rejected. For many, pride also is at stake.

But when people do say hello, others are encouraged to be more open. General friendliness encourages people to be comfortable and welcomed where they are, creating a sense of unity on campus, Hull said.

The desire for community fuels efforts to unite students on campus.

"We all crave community and are naturally a part of community in our university," Hull said. "But we want the most encouraging community--not just a place where we feel one of many."

Greeting a stranger may seem insignificant, but for Christians, faith empowers even the little actions. Hull's faith allows her to break down walls between herself and others: "Knowing that my identity isn't based on how cool I appear should allow me to be more humble. This humility lets me be more open and encouraging to other people--which is what we were called to be."