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Students as Ambassadors of Civic Dialogue

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
January 10, 2019 Justin Koppelman Chapman University

When we have a deeper understanding of our own identity and empathy for the identities of others, we create a stronger and more inclusive community.  This sentiment has served as a guiding framework for campus climate efforts at Chapman University.  Specifically, the relationships between experiences with and understanding of identity, the engagement of empathy for the experiences of others, and the cultivation of a sense of community have informed efforts to further a campus climate that affirms diversity and moves toward justice as it also engages the spectrum of perspectives and voices that emerge as students partake in public expression. 

This approach has also led to a new effort meant to further a campus ethos that acknowledges community as something that inherently and inevitably includes conflict and disagreement.  In a time when the term “snowflake” has become a fragile synonym too easily used as a label for both conservative and liberal students, furthering students’ engagement in political dialogue has received increasing attention in recent years.  Deliberative dialogue has been a topic included in national and special interest conferences and identified by the Institute for Democracy in Higher Education as a key influence on student voting rates.  In addition to providing opportunities to engage in dialogue, highlighting and featuring students’ engagement in difficult dialogue has important individual and cultural value.  Individually, it affirms` and recognizes the investment students make when they wade into the messy waters of discussing wicked dilemmas.  It serves to demonstrate students fulfilling a key responsibility associated with their identity as citizens of broader communities – to interact with and involve different perspectives, at times even those that are diametrically opposed to their own.  Culturally, it demonstrates students as active agents of, rather than passive drifters in, their world. 

Student affairs professionals know that students are not absent from discussions about complicated and complex problems.  While they might not readily join every conversation about every heated topic, they are certainly not indifferent to them all.  Prominent recognition of students discussing, and perhaps disagreeing on, difficult subjects with other students can demonstrate a sense of community that is strengthened by, rather than shaken by, conflict and difference.  It only further primes students for future public engagement in a world where conflict is inevitable and the outcomes of conflict are at least in part shaped by the resilience of those involved in and affected by it.

In this spirit, Chapman University has launched a new Dialogue Ambassador program meant to recognize and support students who commit to fostering dialogue that engages students’ social and civic identities to create a stronger and more inclusive community.  Dialogue Ambassadors are asked to assume an elevated level of leadership as participants in efforts meant to foster meaningful dialogue about issues related to diversity and civic life.  As Ambassadors, they help to model empathic listening and honest sharing, build trust across differences, ensure students consider a diverse range of viewpoints, explore disagreements in tandem with areas of common ground, and cultivate a commitment to all members of the Chapman community as being welcome and needed in dialogue.  They are offered the opportunity to serve as student facilitators for the We Are Chapman diversity leadership retreat, early admittance to the intergroup dialogue program, and funding to meaningfully advance their capacity to improve student dialogue around topics affecting campus and civic life.  Ambassadors may use this funding to attend a relevant conference, pursue an applicable certification, or complete a formal training program.  As participants in this program, students commit to monthly development meetings, participation in five dialogue-oriented programs, and modeling engagement in difficult dialogue in formal and informal settings.  They are also recognized by and meet with the University President and Vice President for Student Affairs to discuss the challenges to and potential of dialogue as well as strategies for involving and managing tensions among different points of view.

Students are recruited to serve as Ambassadors after having participated in dialogue-oriented efforts and demonstrating investment in the development of their peers and their communities.  Students in the program are not responsible for the work of promoting or planning dialogue programs, though their interests and insights help to inform the development of related efforts.  In this role, Ambassadors become partners in pursuing shared goals of integrating dialogue into the student culture and strengthening the campus community.  As participation in the program grows, Ambassadors will play a key role in ensuring dialogue about contested and controversial topics is understood as something to expect as an element of the Chapman student experience and something to anticipate when in community with others.

While the program is just getting underway, it represents one effort to meet the challenge many colleges and universities face – cultivating a vibrant campus climate with and for students, while engaging in difficult conversations about complex issues – using a program model already in use.  As peer educator/leader initiatives have helped to advance responsible behavior around alcohol use, wellness habits, and sustainable living practices, we hope the strengths of this model can also help the campus develop meaningful political dialogue as a norm of the student culture.  As we work with students to fulfil this shared responsibility, we hope their investment and continued ideas for improvement will create a democratically developed effort to prime students for current and future dialogue.