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Students reach understanding about differences through dialogue

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This generation of students is known for its open-mindedness and its acceptance of others as they mingle comfortably with those of other ethnic backgrounds and lifestyle choices.
 
But that doesn’t mean there are never problems when it comes to understanding one another. Take for example, the now famous video put up on YouTube by a UCLA student complaining about Asian students in the library.
 
studentgroup.With this and other challenges in mind, the Bruin Resource Center — which provides support and services for a wide variety of students with particular needs — has developed a program that provides a place for students to engage in dialogue with people different from them. It also trains students to serve as peer facilitators in these groups.
 
Pamela Viele, executive director of student development at the Bruin Resource Center, said the goal is to enhance the campus climate through academic courses and programs that foster mutual understanding, respect and constructive social action among students from different identity groups where there has been a history of tension or conflict. Among the topics so far have been gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, class and immigration status.
 
The Intergroup Relations (IGR) program came about in 2009 when the resource center partnered with Sylvia Hurtado, professor in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, to pilot UCLA’s first academic training course aimed at preparing students to serve as peer facilitators of the dialogues. The dialogue groups are comprised of between 10 and 16 students plus two facilitators. Student facilitators as well as student participants in the dialogues earn credits.
 
"We pull together as much as possible equal numbers of identified groups, so the status hierarchies present in society are not present in these groups," Viele explained. "What shows up is diversity within the identified group. So that kind of loosens those hard kinds of categories and creates an openness at looking at hot-button topics."
 
All students are required to read materials that are specific to the identified group, including such things as the roots of inequality and the sources of tension. For example, if the group is focused on race, the readings might be Beverly Tatum’s "Defining Racism: Can We Talk?" or an article on interracial dating.
 
Students discuss these readings and participate in activities to sharpen the focus on sources of conflict. They also engage in structured activities that help reveal underlying assumptions that lead to tension.
 
For example, in gender groups, the men caucus with each other about what it means to identify as a man, while women discuss what it means to identify as a woman. Then the women gather in an inside circle to talk about these issues while the men gather in an outside circle and listen or ask questions. Then the process is reversed, with men in the inner circle. Or students might examine the implications of being constrained to identify with a particular gender at all.
 
Students also engage in the "privilege walk," in which they can see more clearly the unearned privileges they might not have realized were there for them.
 
Pam Viele
Pamela Viele, executive director of student development at the Bruin Resource Center.
"We might ask, ‘Those of you who had more than 50 books in your house when you were growing up, raise your hands,’" Viele said. "Or we will ask who among them have one or two parents who went to college." Students who have enjoyed these benefits often take them for granted, she said, "but it gets harder for them to argue that they are all on a level playing field."
 
During these kinds of discussions, issues can get contentious, exposing deep anger in some participants. Or, in other cases, sadness or grief might come up. Student facilitators are trained to deal with such intense emotions with the aim of building bridges of understanding across different perspectives and experiences.
 
Throughout the quarter, students keep an ongoing journal to help them reflect on the meaning of the in-class discussions and readings and assignments.
 
While some people have suggested that intergroup dialogues should be a requirement for all students — because students who choose to participate in a program like this are probably more likely to engage in open conversation in the first place — the program doesn’t have the capacity to do that now, Viele said.
 
"But also there is some research that says that when you’re trying to introduce innovation it’s better to start with early adopters," she said.
 
Viele said that because of the YouTube video and other indications of tensions, the need for these programs is ever more clear.
 
"Our experience thus far suggests there’s a growing interest among students in developing meaningful dialogues," she said. "We view the Intergroup Dialogue program as an effective preparation for the diverse world in which we all live."
 
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To learn more about the Intergroup Relations program, go here. For more information about the program, contact Tiffani Garnett, program director, at tgarnett@saonet.ucla.edu or (310) 825-7164.
 
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