It all starts with the coffee machine.
I stand awkwardly to the side, phone in one hand, watching my benefactor twist knobs and buttons on the sleek hunk of metal that looks like something out of the inside of my roommate’s car. There is a trickle of espresso; a scream of pressurized steam into frothing milk. When the milk is finally poured, with a flourish, into the cup of espresso, what is left is a delicate, frothy white heart. I stare at it for a moment, then reluctantly step away. Alas, the espresso is not for me. Suddenly, I regret ever asking Shreyas for tea.
Shreyas Lakhtakia M.S. ‘23 is a friendly, bespectacled first-year graduate student with well-coiffed hair, a firm handshake, and most of all, a love for coffee. It’s roasted coffee beans that are a cornerstone of Shreyas’ passionate, one-man effort to cultivate, as his website proclaims, “a place for conversation, caffeination and community.”
The Beagle Cafe, as it is called, is perhaps more a café in spirit than in infrastructure. All the action happens in his small apartment in Escondido Village Graduate Residences (EVGR) B, where Shreyas serves as barista, host and community leader. Here, Shreyas makes coffee for groups as small as two and as large as eight, while they make themselves at home on whatever seating he has to offer — a couch, a chair, his bed. By the time the drinks are ready, it’s time for conversation.
Shreyas tells me a story about where the name of his café comes from — back when he lived in Boston, he lived across a café called “Darwin’s Cafe.” Shreyas says he wanted to replicate the sense of community he found in the café, first in his later home in Brooklyn, NY, and now here at Stanford. From Darwin came the name “Beagle,” an homage to the vessel that held Charles Darwin as he sailed the world in search of his theory of evolution.
“It’s this idea of a café that moves around the world with me,” said Shreyas, who was born and raised in southern India but moved to the U.S. to attend college. “That, and my love for dogs.”
Wills Baird, a first-year medical student, said that he found out about the Beagle Cafe after meeting Shreyas at a graduate student mixer. Shreyas had invited several other students from other graduate programs to talk. For Wills, the conversation started off as usual — speaking about personal experiences at Stanford and what they’re interested in. But then, he said, it went a little deeper. They started talking about what led them to Stanford and how they wanted to spend their lives.
“Each of us looked at problems differently, but they were sort of the same problems,” Wills said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
Michael Ward, a student in the Stanford Teacher Education program staff in the Graduate Program of Education, said he found out about the cafe through a weekly newsletter in EVGR. Michael said his group’s conversation touched a lot on international topics, as his coffee-mates were all international students. Michael remembers sharing his experience living in a rural town in Taiwan as an ESL teacher, as well as getting to talk Asian geopolitics with his other groupmates.
“I think the ‘so what’ of it,” he said, “is that we were able to bring in all of our own perspectives and just see how they interacted with each other.”
It’s this sort of confluence of graduate backgrounds that Shreyas is trying to foster, at a school where graduate student community can be hard to come by.
“Sometimes the grad student experience is pretty lonely,” Shreyas said. “Finding avenues for grad students to be social is hard, because it isn’t super organic. But that’s part of the ambition with this initiative.”
Michael chalks up the lack of engagement to the wide range of backgrounds — there’s people from different graduate programs, graduate students who live on campus, graduate students who live off campus, graduate students with children. And it certainly doesn’t help that a lot of graduate student events, according to Michael, feel more like “networking” events.
“I’ve been pitched startups,” Michael said. “It felt like people were coming at it from a ‘what can this do for me’ angle.”
Wills echoed Michael’s sentiment, saying that it’s easy for graduate students to become “siloed” into their individual graduate programs without some sort of “mechanism” to bring them together. For Wills, the Beagle Cafe — with its emphasis on community — does that very thing.
“With Beagle, it’s a smaller setting,” Wills said. “It’s a mechanism that facilitates engagement with people you normally wouldn’t cross paths with.”
But what exactly makes the café tick? When Shreyas invited me over for a drink and a chat, I didn’t refuse — and by the end of our hour-long conversation together, I felt like I understood a little of his dream for the Beagle Cafe. Shreyas is searching for something, although he doesn’t know entirely what it is. Maybe it’s community. Maybe it’s a great conversation. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the chance to brew a really good cup of coffee.