The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) defines a liberal arts education as an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change, while providing students with broad knowledge of the wider world. Here at the Marshall Center, we believe one way for students to gain and improve on these skills is to participate in Intergroup Dialogue (IGD). Intergroup Dialogues are facilitated conversations over a sustained period of time that bring together a group of diverse participants to explore commonalities and differences, power and privilege, and find ways of working together toward greater understanding.
We have been offering dialogues for students for several years. The way we structure the dialogue at Wheaton is by bringing together an interesting and diverse mix of students with various social identities for a ten week dialogue. Students apply to the dialogue program based on their interest in the topic and volunteer to commit to meeting together once a week for 10 weeks of dialogue. Typically, we have two student facilitators working with a staff member that oversees the dialogue. The staff and student facilitators meet to prepare the lessons for the week and also to debrief the dialogues. Some of our past dialogue topics include race and ethnicity, spirituality and religion, ability, sexual orientation, nationality and gender.
Participating in the dialogue program allows students to develop important skills like active listening, leaning into discomfort, building cultural competence, and developing effective communication skills, just to name a few. It also teaches students the importance of staying in community even with differing viewpoints and experiences. These skills are crucial to living and leading in a complex global world.
Research done by AAC&U indicates that students who participate in IGD increase their awareness and understanding of inequalities, are more motivated to relate to others from different backgrounds and create positive relationships with others in the group. It also gives them more confidence in taking action against injustices.
The biggest challenge is that a successful dialogue demands time and dedication from the individual students. We have found that time is needed to develop guidelines for communicating with one another, time is needed to develop trust so folks can share their stories and personal experiences with one another, and time is needed to process and work through differences. But that time and effort pays off: in a successful dialogue, students come to some understanding of another person’s viewpoint, even if it is vastly different from the student’s own.
Our program evaluations support this. Students who committed to the dialogue process report that they are more comfortable spending time with and listening to the experience of others, they are more comfortable discussing issues pertaining to social identities, and report that even though they do not always agree with everyone, they come to a common understanding about their experience.
As today’s students are immersed in and surrounded by complicated technology that takes them away from face to face interactions and relationships, in the end, it may be that simply engaging in dialogues with others can help them take steps toward solving the most complex issues of their time.