Yale News: Step inside the Portal and enter a global gateway

That gold-painted, metal shipping container parked on College Street the past couple of weeks is a cultural catapult.

As you swing open the heavy door at one end of the container, you’re in New Haven. But once you step inside, you’re whisked to another part of the world — a Syrian refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, for instance, or a university in Herat, Afghanistan.

A full compliment of audio, video, and Internet gear inside the Portal — that’s the official name — sends a head-to-toe image of visitors from one Portal location to another, instantly. The effect is that you’re standing face-to-face with someone, having a 20-minute conversation.

“Sometimes, the most awkward thing for a person to do is simply to talk to another person. In the Portal, you are engaging someone one-on-one, where many of your cultural queues may not translate exactly as you intended,” said Yale law student Amar C. Bakshi, founder and lead artist at Shared Studios, which launched the Portal project in December 2014.

“We are creating incredibly unique time capsules of a certain moment of time between two different communities,” Bakshi said. “This is about engaging across myriad forms of distance and making a moment out of these encounters.”

Cities that have participated in either a permanent or a pop-up Portal include Nairobi, Mexico City, Geneva, Tehran, and Havana, as well as Washington, D.C., Miami, San Francisco, and Nashville. Bakshi estimated there already have been 13,000 connections made between all of the Portals.

This is New Haven’s second experience with a Portal. After a successful visit outside the Yale University Art Gallery in 2015, the Portal returned this month in time for the eighth Global Colloquium of University Presidents (UNGC), hosted by Yale.

Organizers expect the current visit to attract about 500 people to the Portal before it closes April 14. The process is quite easy: You schedule a 20-minute appointment by signing up athttp://www.sharedstudios.com/new-haven-portal.html. The possibilities for virtual travel include Erbil, Herat, and an entrepreneurial co-working group in Kigali, Rwanda.

“This is Rwanda’s first day in the network,” Bakshi said recently, on a cold and rainy spring afternoon.

Inside the Portal, three digital visitors awaited. Ara Nashera, Arlette Umwali, and Gil Mwebaze were all dressed for warm weather. They commented first on the umbrella they saw leaning against a wall in New Haven, before talking about their hopes for the Portal project.

“I feel like we’ll see the differences between both sides,” Mwebaze said. “A lot of people (in America) may not know much about African cities, and what they think it is like.”

“We have an open mind,” said Nashera. “We’d like to talk with students about the Yale culture. It will be interesting to know what things the different departments are doing and what the students are engaged with.”

By sheer chance, the trio soon met another Rwandan — Yale freshman Chaste Niwe — who signed up at the Portal without knowing he’d be meeting people from his own country. Niwe was beaming by the end of the exchange.

“I really loved it. It is almost too real,” he said of the experience. “I kept thinking, ‘Where are the cameras?’”

Niwe said his session mostly centered on technology innovations, and start-up culture in Rwanda and the United States — something he thought would surprise many Americans.

“They are barely 23 years old and they are innovating,” Niwe said of his Portal partners. “They are looking at ways to help people without Internet service. That’s a narrative of self-reliance. And they asked me interesting questions: What do I want to do? What should be our focus in America? That’s amazing. I think I’ll sign up again and hear a different story from somewhere else.”