Stanford News: Portals Project makes connections around the world

While celebrating May Day in Kigali this year, University of Rwanda student INNOCENT UDAHEMUKA stopped by Stanford for a visit – well, almost.

Stepping into a gold-painted, soundproofed shipping container, Udahemuka stood in just the right spot for the mic to pick him up, the cameras to provide a full-body projection and the 4G connection to deliver him to a similar container in front of Crothers Hall on the Stanford campus. Udahemuka was in Rwanda.

On the California side, Stanford’s STEPHEN STEDMAN chatted with Udahemuka about his career goals (IT), what U.S. cities are like (not all tall buildings like Manhattan) and whether Stedman is voting for DONALD TRUMP (emphatically no).

Located in 18 cities around the world, the shipping containers are part of the Portals Project, an experiment in art, technology and human connection. Stanford students have just two weeks to stop by Crothers Hall to speak live with participants in Kigali; Isfahan, Iran; and Mexico City.

Stedman, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Crothers resident fellow, worked with the Haas Center for Public Service, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning to bring the project to campus.

“This is a unique opportunity for our students to talk to people they might ordinarily never have the chance to meet,” he said. “Since Crothers is the global citizenship theme dorm, it’s a perfect spot to host the project.”

Twenty-minute slots, facilitated by curators on both ends, were already filling up with curious students, faculty and staff during the portal’s May 2 debut. Hurrying over from his dorm with oatmeal still in hand, Stanford student MAX WANG was eager to start his conversation on time.

“Speaking to someone in Rwanda was meaningful,” Wang said. “When I think of Rwanda, I think of a book I read on the Rwandan genocide. To meet someone almost in the flesh and find out they’re a real person who enjoys local food, that was really cool.”

That’s exactly the point, according to co-founder MICHELLE MOGHTADER of Shared Studios, a multidisciplinary arts, design and technology collective.

“Most of us talk to people we know, with whom we have things in common. The portal is designed to literally put participants in a different space,” she said. That’s also why the containers are painted gold: The idea is to take something as mundane as small talk and make it special.

The portals are on campus through May 13; participants can sign up via this link.