Conversation catalyzes connection, a crucial skill for leaders to develop to promote an inclusive culture. On Wednesday, Feb. 13 from 5-7 p.m. in the Aula, SUNY New Paltz and Vassar collaboratively hosted “Building Community Connections—One Story at a Time,” a dinner which aimed to connect student leaders across institutions through dialogue and storytelling to refine their leadership skills.
SUNY New Paltz organizers included Chief Diversity Officer/ Title IX Coordinator Tanhena Pacheco Dunn (co-author of the Stepping Into Diversity Grant that funds the program), Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Linda Eaton, Program Coordinator of Stepping into Diversity Diana Suarez and Complex Director of Residential Life Kyleen Martin. According to Suarez, the organizers contacted Vassar because they already had connections established with the college, and, “[they] wanted to develop a partnership with other institutions so that students from different colleges can gather and talk about issues of diversity and inclusion.”
Vassar and SUNY New Paltz organizers acknowledged that higher education institutions tend to be insular, leaving students fairly inexperienced in interacting with the world outside of it. This feature is particularly salient at Vassar, causing the phenomenon to be dubbed the “Vassar bubble.” Vassar’s Associate Dean of the College for Student Growth and Engagement Wendy Maragh Taylor, a key organizer who has worked in Student Affairs at institutions such as Marist, NYU, Adelphi and Dutchess Community College prior to her tenure at Vassar, indicated that this isolation deprives students of both personal and career-related growth. “What a rich set of experiences students miss out on when they don’t engage in cross-campus collaborations,” she wrote in an email interview.
The organizers hoped the dinner would serve as a means of escape from this institutional insularity and create a community outside of it. “We wanted to give students a chance to connect and share experiences with other students from other institutions,” Suarez shared. Dunn added that dialogue helps break assumptions that students make about one another, emphasizing the importance of leaning in when presented with unfamiliar views. “It helps to foster understanding about the culture and values of a different campus,” she said. “We can appreciate common ground as well as help develop skills that promote engagement even when someone’s perspective is different or at odds with your own.”
As a component of SUNY New Paltz’s Stepping into Diversity programming—a program aimed at building students’ leadership skills with a focus on diversity, inclusion and conversation about each—the dinner used prompts about feelings of inclusion or exclusion to facilitate conversation between students of both schools, who mingled at their cross-institutional dinner tables. Students generally had the opportunity to speak with someone outside of their school because the schools were fairly evenly matched: According to Taylor, there were 18 Vassar students and 20 SUNY New Paltz students present. However, Vassar attendee Ivanna Guerra ’20 noticed that New Paltz students outnumbered Vassar students, since some Vassar participants were unable to attend last minute. “More students should look out for these events,” she said.
The conversations took place in small groups. Participants reflected on the prompts, then wrote down their thoughts prior to sharing with the rest of the table. “[This format] allow[ed] space for those who need a little more time to process and also allow[ed] for equity in sharing—[so that] those who are more extroverted or verbal don’t end up monopolizing the conversation,” Taylor described of the Think, Write, Speak modality.
Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practice Samuel Speers, who helped organize Vassar’s side of the event, elaborated on the narrative format. “[It] is one way of incorporating some of the different learning styles people bring to these kinds of discussions,” he noted. Guerra agreed that storytelling made the conversation accessible to different personalities, writing, “Sharing allows everyone with different forms of thinking to approach the question in whatever way they feel more comfortable.”
Although SUNY New Paltz spearheaded the initiative, Speers and Taylor hope to host such events again soon to continue honing students’ leadership skills, particularly after witnessing the impression this cross-institutional interaction left on Vassar students. “We’ve talked over the years about doing this kind [of] thing,” Speers wrote. “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to build on this effort in ways that will make such gatherings an ongoing thing for our Hudson Valley campuses.”
The SUNY New Paltz team shared similar sentiments, planning on developing similar events in other Hudson Valley schools, including Dutchess Community College, and hoping to invite Vassar student leaders to New Paltz for a similar evening.
Reflecting on the importance of advancing this initiative, Dunn concluded, “The work of diversity and inclusion is work that involves passion and sustained efforts … relationships and common purpose made this a really unique opportunity.”