A program to increase diversity dialogue between University of South Dakota students will see its membership more than double this semester.
Voices of Discovery: An Intergroup Dialogue Program was started by Jesus Trevino, associate vice president for diversity, in spring 2013 to create a safe space for students to talk across their differences.
“It’s small groups of students representing different identities,” Trevino said. “We create structured interaction over the course of several weeks of meetings for them to talk. Each group is led by a facilitator, who helps lead the group discussion.”
The dialogue groups include GLBTIQ/heterosexual, race in America, women’s intragroup dialogue, Native American/non-Native student, male/female, athlete/non-athlete, students of color/white students, global issues dialogue and international/U.S.-born students. The groups of eight to 10 students will meet once a week from Feb. 2 to March 7.
At each groups’ first meeting, students will get to know each other personally, Trevino said.
“If students are able to bond before getting into discussion, when they get into a heated discussion, that bond won’t break,” Trevino said.
When Trevino started the program in spring 2013, 40 students participated. In fall 2013, 130 students participated, and more than 300 students are participating this spring. Trevino said he has done a lot of recruiting for the program through classes on campus.
“Faculty members will give students credit and then apply to be part of the program,” he said. “This process won’t happen on its own. It needs to be structured, and we have to give incentives.”
Assistant professor Kelly McKay-Semmler is one faculty member who is giving credit to her students for participating in the Voices of Discovery program. This semester, she has asked her Communication and Gender students to be part of the dialogue.
“I had a really good program experience last semester when I had my Intergroup Communication class take part in the program,” McKay-Semmler said.
McKay-Semmler said she also wanted her students, who are usually Speech Communication majors or minors, to take part in the program to develop their skills.
“Being familiar with communication theories, I also know that you can reduce uncertainty with unfamiliar groups through contact,” she said.
Having her students participate in the program has also helped increase discussion in class, McKay-Semmler said.
“I love that they bring these wonderful conversations into the classroom,” she said. “It increases the productivity in the classroom. I also hope they will be ambassadors and take what they’ve learned in the classroom back to their discussion groups.”
Senior Lena Tran first participated in Voices of Discovery last fall as part of McKay-Semmler’s Intergroup Communication class.
“It was a great idea, especially because we’re in a comfortable setting where we can voice our thoughts and interact with other students,” Tran said.
The program, which was first started at Arizona State University by Trevino during his employment there and modeled after a University of Michigan program, “promotes a positive climate for diversity” and inclusive excellence.
“Students come to college to interact with people who are different than they are,” Trevino said. “This program fulfills that expectation. It also helps decrease prejudice, provides students with a greater understanding of diversity and is training for the world of work.”
Tran chose to be part of the racism and sexism group, which she said opened her eyes to diversity sensitivity.
“It’s definitely an issue that is apparent on campus, and it was interesting to see other perspectives,” she said. “We live on a campus where you just don’t see it, but it’s there. It exists. Most of the students in the group were American white, and they didn’t think it was a big deal because they haven’t encountered it.”
Tran said the program was a great opportunity she would likely take part in again.
“It’s a good way to see different perspectives and be aware of other viewpoints,” Tran said. “It gives you the opportunity to interact with other students you wouldn’t normally, and you get to know one another and form friendships.”
USD is one of the few universities in the country to have a program like Voices of Discovery, Trevino said.
“These programs are rare,” Trevino said. “We just happen to have one because I’m here, but it just makes sense here.”
McKay-Semmler said it’s important for every university to have a program like Voices of Discovery.
“I’m excited that we’re spearheading this program,” she said. “It’s giving students exposure to groups they might not have access to otherwise, plus it’s good preparation for life, and it gives them the possibility of making friends across other groups.”
Follow reporter Kayla Prasek on Twitter @kprasek