University of Maryland: Making Tough Conversations A Little Easier

You might feel the attentiveness—or lack of it—of a doctor listening to you describe your symptoms, based on your accent. Or the eyes on you when you take your seat in a lecture hall full of people with skin tones different than yours. Or the fear when you’re driving while Black and realize your taillight is out. In ways big and small, social identity molds our individual experiences, often making it difficult to explain ourselves to people who don’t share our backgrounds and worldviews.

A new undergraduate course, “Teaching and Learning About Cultural Diversity Through Intergroup Dialogue,” is aiming to equip students with the skills and sensitivity needed to facilitate discussions among people with different outlooks. Dialogue that intends to truly understand a perspective other than one’s own is more essential now than ever, said the course’s primary instructor.

“In media, we aren’t really seeing spaces where folks are able to talk to one another across their differences, whether they be political or ideological,” said Jazmin Pichardo, assistant director of diversity training and education in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI). “A default is this debate mode that actually doesn’t help us be constructive in being able to work together.”

Pichardo, who leads ODI’s Words of Engagement Intergroup Dialogue Program, previously taught a version of the course to graduate students, and has now adapted the course for undergraduates through a collaboration with College Park Scholars and the Honors College.

Through workshops, activities and discussions on topics like impostor syndrome, inequity in medical care and disparities in the judicial system, students hear new perspectives as each shares their personal experiences. Along the way, Pichardo and the teaching assistants leading the course teach students about active listening, asking open-ended questions, and developing trust and other skills that are key to facilitating dialogue. The course satisfies recently adjusted general education diversity course requirements and emphasizes experiential learning, a priority in the university’s new strategic plan.

“It’s very meta, in the sense that the students learn about dialogue while engaging in it,” said Ben Parks, associate director for student affairs in College Park Scholars and a Ph.D. student focusing on student affairs who is a teaching assistant for the course. “It’s cool to see the students beginning to apply those principles and share what they’ve learned with their peers.”

As a final project, the students are tasked with facilitating their own dialogue through Words of Engagement. Carlos Choppin ’24, who’s in the College Park Scholars International Studies program, is part of a group that will be leading a dialogue on impostor syndrome in STEM fields, focusing on historically underrepresented groups.

Drawn in by the course description and the “intriguing” promise of learning to be a dialogue facilitator, “I developed a general awareness of my own identity and other identities, and how to be able to hold opposing perspectives as equally true,” he said.

Choppin sees ways in which he can use the skills he’s learned in his personal life. “I plan on having a dialogue with some of my friends,” he said. “In general, guys don’t talk enough about feelings and now that I’ve learned a little, I can get some of my friends to participate in that.”

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