It’s fall break at Luther as I write and the campus definitely feels like it. It is quiet and many faculty and staff are getting caught up on their work and projects. I trust students are doing the same whether they are here, at home, or elsewhere.
For first-year students, this is the first real break since August, when they began the big task of adjusting to college. They have experienced orientation, their first classes, first papers and exams, and more. They have been working to find connections on campus—connections with faculty, staff, and importantly, peers. How have these relationships developed? I trust you may have heard a little bit about that during this break. I hope the reports were good.
This downtime is an important part of the student experience and, if leveraged correctly, can propel them to better well-being. Relationships are important in our lives and whether familial, work-related, or peer-focused, they matter. On a residential campus like Luther, relationships are key to how we live and learn in community. Essential in these relationships are our caring for one another, our challenging one another to be better version of ourselves, and our capacity for forgiving and providing grace when others make mistakes—or we do.
Following the national conversations on a multitude of issues, it is striking to me that few if any are of good quality. These “conversations” seem to be more about whose volume is the loudest or who can win the most debate points. You have to wonder if have we lost the capacity to listen to one another.
In a time of deep polarization in the United States, college campuses are experiencing the seeds sown over several decades. Can we find the space, and grace, to have authentic, vulnerable dialogue with one another? Even when we see the same problem, our solutions may be informed by very different perspectives, potentially leaving us unable to solve the problem we so readily see. In other situations the problem is abundantly apparent from one perspective and considered a non-issue from another. How do we we bridge these very real divides? Perhaps by providing space and grace for authentic, vulnerable dialogue and building trust.
Luther is hosting the Iowa Student Personnel Association’s annual conference this week and major themes, such as civility, respect, and trust, have emerged. Luther alumnus and higher education expert, Dr. George Kuh ’68, was the conference’s keynote speaker. He spoke of the importance of building trust on campus. This is not a simple nor straightforward effort but one built upon relationships. All campuses should heed Dr. Kuh’s wisdom and advice—focus on creating spaces and opportunities for relationships to develop and grow. I would add, be patient with this process.
The Center for Ethics and Public Engagement is one place on campus where such conversations and dialogue are facilitated. The center uses a model for encouraging dialogue that is taught by Dr. Steinar Bryn, teacher, researcher, and acting principal at the Nansen Academy in Lillehammer, Norway. Dr. Bryn is deeply engaged in peace and reconciliation work, especially in the Balkans. The center is using his method with a group of students who come from different political perspectives. These students identify as Democrats and Republicans and have been meeting in a small groups this year to discuss issues and listen for where they may find common ground. Luther Peace Scholars have also had the privilege to learn from and work directly with Dr. Bryn as part of their summer in Norway.
Places like Luther, mission-driven and community focused, should be a light in this broader storm and offer a model for how problems can be identified and solved. We can be a place where space and grace for authentic, vulnerable dialogue can occur. How do we begin? I suggest we may have already begun, to some degree. I think the greater challenge is to keep in mind what the possibilities are at Luther. We don’t need to agree on every point, in fact, that would make the college experience and the community outright boring and uninspired. Rather, we need to recognize the inherent worth of each individual and to welcome them where they are personally—that might be what we call hospitality. If we meet people where they are, we create the space and freedom to move beyond simple conclusions and false narratives into more fully formed, respectful relationships and as Dr. Bryn has taught, peace.
This is a significantly courageous step and courage can be found if we slow down and allow ourselves to do discover it and/or show it. How is your student being courageous, vulnerable, generous, and gracious? How do does your student cultivate the kind of relationships with others that are meaningful, interdependent, and potentially transformative? Does your student feel valued? To answer yes to this last question may simply require all of us to use of one of the greatest skills anyone can possess—listening to others.