People in conversation

Southern Vermont College Addresses Campus Diversity

After Essential Partners worked with Southern Vermont College on its Campus Community Dinner Series—a program that brings together students and community residents for dinner and discussion—Dean of Students Anne Hopkins Gross invited further collaboration to help the increasingly diverse community become more inclusive and more welcoming.

“One of the bigger issues I’ve seen on campus is students having a hard time handling interpersonal conflict, particularly when there is much anger,” says Hopkins Gross. “When students from different backgrounds don’t understand each other, it can lead to mistrust at best and fisticuffs at worst.”

“So, we’ve been slowly working on issues around diversity, acceptance, and understanding,” explains Hopkins Gross. “One of my goals for last year was helping people learn how to talk to each other around difficult issues.”

As a result, the college created a Diversity Advisory Council—comprised of administrators, faculty, staff, and students—to develop a series of diversity and inclusion programs.

Civic Engagement Coordinator Katie Shear describes the team’s training with Essential Partners as a precursor to those trainings.

“We hoped to do some groundwork to build skills we thought would be helpful in our conversations about diversity,” she explains. “We were opening up the opportunity for students to talk about differences and we wanted to make sure our faculty and staff had the skills to support those conversations.”

Building Institutional Capacity

Essential Partners led a training for 20 faculty members and staff (attendees’ roles ranged from Administrative Assistant to Campus Safety Officers to the Dean of Students) about having difficult conversations around differences of values, views, and identities.

In particular, they focused on the role of residence life, and how to enable students to talk about difficulties before they become divisive conflicts.

“The idea was to equip people with tools they could use to design meetings and conversations that would allow students to talk about things in constructive ways,” explains EP Senior Associate Bob Stains.

“The format of the training was helpful because it allowed for modeling and practicing of different skills,” says Shear. “It was also a time for us to be together as a faculty and a staff. I left feeling as though I had gotten to know some of my co-workers much better, and that I had allies across campus.”

“Effective and Respectful Communication”

As a result of the workshop, faculty and staff were prepared to better support students in the campus’s conversations around diversity, inclusion, and identity.

“The Essential Partners workshop was a way of building up our ability to talk about more difficult issues, such as poverty and GLBTQ safe spaces. It was really the foundational entrée into those more challenging issues of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender,” explains Hopkins Gross. “The workshop created a non-threatening environment and was a real trust-building experience. I think people walked away feeling much more confident about having difficult conversations.”

Shear agreed. “I think that using what we learned, staff were able to model effective and respectful communication for students. A next step would be for us to help students employ some of these methods themselves,” she said. “And, the results of our workshop were not only that staff gained skills in communication but also that we left feeling supported by each other in the work that we do.”