Courtney Dillard isn’t afraid of strangers.
In fact, the Willamette University rhetoric and media studies instructor spent five months traveling across the country to meet as many of them as she could.
“There’s this discourse in America about our country being divided and scary,” she says. “I didn’t believe that.”
To test this theory, Dillard and her husband Matt Webber spent their honeymoon driving from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine and back in their 1997 Ford Aerostar. Their goal was to meet 50 people, treat them to breakfast and listen to their stories.
They funded their journey with about $9,000 of their own money and another $8,000 from sponsors. Not only did they develop a website that chronicles their project, they’re now writing a book about it, titled “Breakfast with Strangers: 50 Meals Across America.” It’s slated for publication in November.
“I think we were optimistic that we would have breakfast with great people, learn things about them and learn things about ourselves,” Dillard says about the trip, which ended in December. “We wanted to make people smile.”
Modeling Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” Dillard viewed hearing people’s stories as an opportunity to make a difference. Soon enough, she found the people she met had a lot to say — including John Marcotte of Sacramento, Calif. and Daniel Scharch of South Plainfield, N.J.
Marcotte talked about his cookie project last Christmas, when he and his family delivered cookies to people working on the holiday. He gave the sweets to those who are often unseen, such as fast-food workers and movie theater attendants — all of whom expresses appreciation for the gesture, Marcotte says.
“When I leave this life, I want people to say I made people’s lives better. I want to have lived the kind of life where people remember me,” he says.
Scharch agrees on the importance of thinking of others, adding that he met with Dillard and Webber because he was looking to try something different. At the time, had just completed a cross-country trip himself and was still unemployed and searching.
He says he didn’t know what to expect when he sat down with Dillard and her husband, but before he knew it, three hours had passed.
“I agree with Courtney and Matt’s mission,” he says. “We’re holding so tightly onto what we feel we own that we forget there is an entire, strange world out there, waiting to be shared. We don’t realize enough that we are just a piece of the big puzzle.”
To find their breakfast companions in new cities, Dillard and Webber asked people if they knew anyone interesting. The couple posted signs, and they took their quest to Reddit.
Through their efforts, Dillard says she met people who shared stories about their careers, their families and experiences that shaped them.
“They showed a lot of kindness, a lot of warmth, a lot of hopefulness that their stories could be heard and that they’d make a connection,” Dillard says. “I was surprised by how thoughtful people were about their lives.”
She also found that the people who were the most happy had all taken risks, and that many were true patriots.
“We heard from so many people who were very proud to be Americans,” she says. “That helped me to be more hopeful for this country and its role in the world.”
Now back at Willamette, Dillard is using the lessons she learned on the road with her students.
To that end, she’s teaching two courses — Designing Persuasive Campaigns and Mass Media and Persuasion — where she’s encouraging her students to voice what matters to them and develop creative projects to help achieve their goals.
“The only way to realize your own dreams is to walk that road step by step,” she says. “To see that in students now, to see what drives them, is incredibly rewarding.”