Dialogues on Race program helps students look through same lens

March 17, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- At Penn State's University Park campus, students' ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds are exceptionally varied. Because so many different groups and experiences are represented, the University has created a number of new advocacy and support offices and programs to foster engaging inter-group dialogue. An important example is the Dialogues on Race program.

Begun spring semester 2001, Dialogues on Race aims to bring diverse students together to look at the ways culture and race affect their views of the world, and their views of others.

D'Andre Wilson, a Counseling and Psychological Services staff psychologist, was involved in Dialogues at the beginning.

"I'm not sure what I envisioned. I was really just kind of wanting to do something more, something different. I felt like something was missing," Wilson recounted. "The University would get people energized but there was not a lot of follow-up to change deeply seated beliefs over time. It's a process."

Dialogues on Race has evolved into a three-credit, 400-level course. A side benefit has been the addition of the Facilitating Intergroup/Intercultural Contact course, providing graduate students in relevant fields the necessary training to facilitate positive and effective intergroup/intercultural contact. After completing the course, students are encouraged to help facilitate the Dialogues course.

Why is such training necessary? Studies have shown that increased diversity on campuses has often been accompanied by increased racial separation and intolerance. Proximity without significant interaction can reinforce stereotypes and misunderstandings instead of reduce them. Therefore, additional intentional and programmed efforts to facilitate significant and positive intergroup/intercultural contact are helpful.

That's where the Dialogues on Race program comes into play.

"It is based on intergroup contacting," Wilson said. "The premise is that universities have tried to address some of these diversity issues by increasing the diversity of the student population, but that's not enough. It actually often raises the conflict. That's not so with real interaction, in-depth interaction, with others; It bridges those things. Some of the signs of success are we have people talking about having different conversations with their friends and exposing them to different populations than they traditionally do."

At the end of each semester, students are asked: "How has participation in this dialogue group affected you personally?" An anonymous sampling of their responses reveals many insights:

-- "I feel more aware of racial issues."

-- "It opened up my eyes to Arab/Muslim issues I did not know before."

-- "I have gotten a better understanding and I am more sympathetic to the beliefs and feelings of others, no matter how different they are from my own."

-- "The group's conversation affects my daily life. Their advice/insight only adds more depth to my personal life."

-- "I have learned more about my own discrimination and biases and have learned that not every issue is black and white."

-- "I think that I am more aware of what it means to be white and how other people who are minorities perceive me. I am more aware now of what I represent to others."

The composition of the group is a key component of the effectiveness of the course.

"The facilitators help model, it isn't didactic," explained Wilson. "The balance of the groups is critical. Students need to have direct contact with diverse groups."

"We have them go through an application process that allows us to gather demographic information and ask students why they want to do it. We place people in groups. The groups are diverse and balanced. When we see what groups are underrepresented, we send out ads to get those populations involved."

From 2001 to 2004, 28 groups (approximately 310 students total) had participated in the program. A breakdown of how those students were comprised yields:

71 percent female
29 percent male
31 percent Black or African-American
21 percent White or Caucasian
14 percent Hispanic or Latino
10 percent Asian
7 percent Middle Eastern or Muslim (specifically identified and targeted for inclusion after 9/11)
16 percent Bi/Multicultural
1 percent other, including Native American

During the 2007-08 academic year, 13 groups (more than 140 students total) have participated so far. Gender is now also taken into consideration and is closer to balanced, Wilson said.

Another valuable part of the class is student self-analysis. Wilson said it's important for each student to recognize his or her own background before trying to understand someone else's.

"We try to make some sort of historical connection with their family and community. We find out where their culture comes from and have them perform intergenerational interviews. Ideally, they're opening up dialogues with their families and friends," Wilson said.

"We all see the world through a particular lens," he adds. "It isn't right or wrong, it's just different. You may not be coming from the same context as me, so let me understand your context, what lens you're looking through. If you are not aware of your own lens, you assume everyone has seen it the same way."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 23, 2020