New student group working to discover voices

Andrew Henderson

When flipping through the channels on television, one often passes through the news outlets and sees glimpses of conflict. Examples could include whites versus people of color, heterosexuals versus homosexuals or Christians versus Muslims. Sometimes it can be difficult to think that any sort of peaceful discussion can occur between different groups, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. 

Sasha Ross, coordinator for Bemis Lawrence Hall, is trying to shorten those gaps of difference and start a conversation. Ross is heading Voices of Discovery: An Intergroup Dialogue Program coming to WKU. The program is based on a model developed in the late ‘90s at Arizona State University and continues at the University of Denver. 

As part of an internship Ross had previously, it was her job to launch an intergroup dialogue program at her graduate school. She then brought the idea with her to WKU. Her goal for these groups is to go beyond the superficial conversations of acknowledging differences between groups and learning more about what those differences mean. 

“It’s hard for people that are different from one another to talk,” Ross said. 

The program will span six weeks and meet two hours each week. Ross said that most of the groups have already hit capacity. These groups include sexuality, race, religion and gender identity. Ross is currently partnered with three professors and the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility.

Tammy Jeffries, a professor in the communication department, is aiding Ross with the program in the area of student involvement. Students in Jeffries’s intercultural communication class were encouraged to apply for the program. 

Jeffries hopes that students in her class will be less fearful to engage in dialogue with others who identify differently, once involved in the program. She noted that without programs such as the InterCULTURAL Club and Voices of Discovery, people may never find the courage to start dialogue with people different than them.

“I understand that when we engage in dialogue with others that we don’t normally speak with, that if often times feels awkward at first,” Jeffries said in an email. 

She said Voices of Discovery is an appropriate response to expressed interest from students to have more conversations like these on campus. Jeffries said this program is truly an outcome of students’ hunger to engage in nonjudgmental conversation surrounding their differences. 

“I am hopeful, optimistic and proud to know that we are part of a university community that seeks to give all its community members ‘voice,’” Jeffries said. 

Saundra Ardrey, department head of political science, is another professor involved with the program. Students in Ardrey’s graduate level Cultural Competency in Public Administration class are required to participate in the program. 

“It’s important for students going out into public administration to be aware of diversity,” she said.

Ardrey said she finds Voices of Discovery to be a great idea. She said that students in her classes often talk about the theories and concepts surrounding diversity and diverse dialogue, but to use it in real life is even more important. 

Simone Smith, graduate student from Indianapolis, is a student in Ardrey’s class who is looking forward to the program. 

“I hope to be more understanding of everyone around me,” Smith said.

Smith said her first choice in the program was the group surrounding religious identity. Her interest on the matter appealed to her as she hopes, “to move from cultural awareness to cultural understanding.” 

Ross echoed these thoughts shared by Smith, hoping that students going through the program feel valued in their opinions and are able to express their differences freely. 

“The hope is that they’ll feel more comfortable engaging in dialogue with people that are different from them,” Ross said. 

Abdul Samad is also a graduate student in Ardrey’s class. Much like Smith, he was drawn to the religious identity group. Samad said that not only does he hope to gain the perspectives of other students, but also to dismiss misconceptions people may have about Muslims.

“Coming from a Muslim background, I believe there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding Muslims,” Samad said.

In contrast with Samad and Smith, Nathan Dalrymple said he was most interested in the students of color and white students group. He said that he finds racial discrimination to still be an issue facing the United States and that people cannot ignore it in hopes of it going away. 

“I believe that the best way to equalize the multiple races in this great country is to acknowledge the differences and see them for the beautiful traits that make us all individuals,” Dalrymple said in an email. 

Despite Voices of Discovery approaching its debut, Ross already holds high hopes for the program’s future.

“I’m talking with ICSR about the potential of someday making this a sustainable program and making it a class people can take credit for,” she said.