Program News

New course lets students reflect on identity, act on injustice

The words echo in every Scholars student’s ears: “We learn better when we learn together.” But the phrase has perhaps never rung as true as with College Park Scholars’ most recent initiative.

This semester, in partnership with the Honors College and the Words of Engagement Intergroup Dialogue Program on campus, Scholars launched CPSP369J: Teaching and Learning about Cultural Diversity through Intergroup Dialogue – Dialogue Facilitation Practicum.​ The three-credit course serves as both a space for students to reflect on their identities and their role in structural inequalities and a training opportunity for them to develop skills in facilitating conversations about injustice within and beyond their communities.

Students will eventually put their skills into action by delivering a justice-oriented workshop to the campus community at the end of the semester.

Facilitating discussions about identity

On a campus where different undergraduate programs don’t have significant opportunities to coordinate, the course offers the unusual opportunity for Scholars and Honors students to learn together. Though such collaborations don’t often happen, it makes a lot of sense, said Ben Parks, associate director for student affairs for Scholars. The course brings together the values that Honors and Scholars both share, allows the programs to share resources and opens the door to continued collaboration in the future.

What really makes this course different from other dialogue courses, though, is the fact that students will be discussing issues of social identity while learning to facilitate those discussions at the same time.

“We're covering multiple identity-based issues, their intersections, and also imparting on students the necessary skills to be able to hold space for others who similarly want to explore and unpack issues of identity, power and conflict in community,” said Jazmin Pichardo, assistant director of diversity training and education in the Office of Diversity & Inclusion. Pichardo helps oversee the Words of Engagement Intergroup Dialogue Program and is one of the instructors for the dialogue facilitation course.

Pichardo saw a need for this kind of training when helping to pilot a dialogue course for the Gemstone Honors Program last year. Before, she had trained faculty, staff and graduate students in dialogue facilitation—but never undergraduate students.

“It gave me an opportunity to see what interests, strengths, knowledge and skill gaps students had and how I could adapt my teaching, training and facilitation style to support their growth,” Pichardo said.

Dr. Carlton Green, a licensed psychologist and former director of diversity training and education in the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, is also an instructor for the new dialogue facilitation course. Four Scholars staff and one Honors College staff are serving as teaching assistants, helping to facilitate the conversations and the training.

Addressing changes in curricular requirements

The new course fulfills the diversity requirement with the University of Maryland’s General Education program, core curriculum requirements meant to provide students with a holistic and foundational education in a variety of subjects. Classes within students’ majors allow them to explore specialized areas, while Gen Ed classes prepare students for life at the university and beyond with a wide breadth of knowledge and experience. 

But ideas about those same requirements are evolving, and the course ties squarely into those new ideas. The University Senate is considering expanding diversity courses to include more active, practice-based learning—for example, dialogue courses that allow students to go beyond passive participation and learn to plan and engage in important conversations, said Scholars’ Parks.

“Within this context, this course checks multiple boxes,” Parks observed. “It creates an attractive practical learning opportunity for our students—since facilitation is an art and skill that has many applications beyond dialogue. And, students who have completed the course could have the opportunity to use their skills to facilitate dialogues for credit in the Scholars community—which builds further capacity and creates even more rich opportunities for students.”

In the long term, the course could expand to fall semesters as well as spring.

Students may also be able to become peer facilitators for the Words of Engagement Intergroup Dialogue Program as part of the push to include more undergraduate student voices in leadership, Pichardo said. Outside of the program, the course could help students promote equity both on and off campus.

Above all, Pichardo said, the course aims to explore how to achieve accountability when someone has caused harm, such as with micro-aggressions and biased statements.

“It’s my hope that students will see that we're all capable of causing harm and we're all capable of repairing and recovering from harm,” she noted. “I want students to walk away from this experience with the skills to be able to acknowledge when harm has happened, show compassion to harm doers and be able to work through how to restore dignity in our interactions with one another.”

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