'Voices of Discovery' Not Muted By COVID

by Karen O'Hara, Global Initiatives

Think about the topics of discussion that you might avoid during your next intergenerational family dinner. Now think about your willingness to discuss those topics with a group of college students from all sorts of majors and backgrounds. Would you feel comfortable enough to speak freely?

At Miami, students in IDS 253, Voices Intergroup Dialogue, and IDS 151, Diversity Seminar, willingly delve into complex issues of race, gender, and religion while they practice listening thoughtfully to others' perspectives. But it's far removed from your typical dinnertime conversation.

Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) is centered around peer learning. Under the leadership of Tarah Trueblood, director of the Center for American and World Cultures, students meet in both large groups and in small face-to-face social identity groups with student co-facilitators. They discuss assigned reading material, and share their personal experiences, or testimonies.

Near the end of the course, student teams develop a Group Action Project (GAP) to shape the Miami environment around the identity they are studying that semester. It requires critical thinking and a determined vision for what they want the university to be.

The subject matter can be intense, particularly for students who are coming to terms with the concept of privilege. There's even time set aside to explore current "hot topics": anything from COVID-19 xenophobia to police brutality.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated moving classes online, the students and co-facilitators of IDS 253 and Intro to Voices (a similar co-curricular program), were well-suited to the challenge. As co-facilitator Samuel Van Vleet put it, "The whole point of the course is change."

What is Intergroup Dialogue (IGD)?

Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) is a model of peer learning that involves semi-structured face-to-face meetings across social identity groups, discussion of relevant reading material, and exploration of group experiences in social and institutional contexts. The goal is to create a setting in which participants engage in open and constructive dialogue and explore issues of intergroup relations, intellectual diversity, free speech, conflict, and community. In the process, participants learn about themselves and peers with different social identities while gaining valuable skills in cross-cultural communication and team-building.

Based on this model, each cohort of the IDS 253 'Voices of Discovery' course, IDS 151 “Diversity Seminar” course, and Intro to Voices class, includes approximately 16 undergraduates and two or three facilitators of differing social identities to guide dialogue about critical issues, such as race, class, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, dis/ability, and gender.

The Voices initiative is a collaborative effort of Miami departments and programs including Black World Studies, Educational Psychology, Family and Social Work, Global Intercultural Studies, Justice & Community Studies, META Collective, Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, Psychology, Residence Life, and Student Affairs in Higher Education.

Fall registration for IDS 253 and IDS 151 is now open

Student Voices

Cara Amatangelo

I think that every person at Miami should be required to take this class because our community would be more inclusive and inviting. This class creates better humans to graduate and go into the real world.

Cara Amatangelo joined the IDS 253 course both to fulfill Miami Plan requirements and to progress in earning the Global Readiness Certificate. As part of a cohort studying race and ethnicity, she was nervous at first about sharing her experiences, particularly in a three-hour class meeting with people she didn't know.

She needn't have worried. "Everybody wants to hear what everyone else has to say. The co-facilitators keep it open and non-judgmental," she said. Speaking up quickly became natural for her.

Peer co-facilitators also made the class more meaningful for Amatangelo. "As part of their training, they answer the same questions we answer," she said. "And now that they are going through it a second time, we can see how the activities and readings have already changed them, impacted their thinking.

Her cohort was able to complete a few face-to-face sessions before moving online, so the transition to online learning went well. "The co-facilitators did a great job of making the class as close as it could be to in-person," she said. "When we first went online, it became more difficult to let everyone speak. But we soon learned to end what we had say by inviting someone else to speak next."

Her team's GAP explores how students feel about representation of their race or ethnicity on campus. As part of this effort, she hopes to also raise awareness about the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion (CSDI).

Amatangelo says that one of her biggest takeaways is that conflict doesn't have to be a bad thing. "Use dialogue and understanding to compromise and understand each other; every person that you encounter has different beliefs, values and backgrounds. You can learn so much from each person, as long as you make an authentic effort."

About Cara

2019-20 Class Year: Junior
Major: Kinesiology, Pre-PA track
Organizations: Miami University Equestrian Team, Gamma Phi Beta sorority
Other: Pursuing Global Readiness Certificate

Future plans: to work in the healthcare industry. Planning to attend graduate school to become a physician assistant, with dual master's degree in public health.

Arianna Mack

People are mostly misunderstood and not comfortable saying the truth. This course taught me that dialogue brings growth; real leadership requires dialogue.

Arianna Mack signed up for IDS 253 mostly to fulfill requirements for the Global Readiness Certificate. But when her cohort decided to study the identity theme of race and ethnicity, she was unsure of what to expect. 

As it happened, the text chosen for the semester, Claude M. Steele's Whistling Vivaldi, had something to say about that uncertainty. One of the focuses of Whistling Vivaldi is identity contingencies, the way one's social identity (gender, race, religion, etc.) affects your interactions with society and other people. 

Steele's concept of stereotype threat also resonated with Mack. According to Steele, a stereotype threat arises when a society applies a negative stereotype to someone based on an identity—such as age, race, gender, or socioeconomic class. Then that stereotype threat follows the person through their everyday interactions with others.

Mack said, "This class has taught me that everyone has some kind of stereotype threat, and that there is no 'hierarchy of oppressions'. Just because someone is marginalized in one area doesn't mean that's their entire identity."

As part of a cohort that had begun the course in person, she agrees that the transition to online learning was a little rough. "At first it felt impersonal, but we got more comfortable as time went on," she said. "People were able to speak their minds while figuring out the technology."

Some of the most powerful moments came during testimonials about race and ethnicity. "I get very excited and want to talk, but I've had to learn how to let things simmer and respect what others are saying," she said. "In the class, we read about perspective giving and perspective taking. We're not always the person who gives perspective; we can also take on other people's perspectives and learn through that."

She also enjoyed the comfortable dynamic that the peer co-facilitators created. "We had two who were undergrads, one grad student, and Tarah. The student peers are close to our age and experience the same things," she said.

Mack's group designed their GAP to look deeper into interracial friendships. They gathered data and built a website that compares different racial differences and how that plays into personal life. 

Mack recommends IDS 253 as a gateway to make positive change in whatever space you are in. "Dialogue will get you so much further than discussion. You can take the skills you learn here into any other job or class. It will help you get the best out of any situation you are in."

About Arianna

2019-20 Class Year: Sophomore
Major: Public Health
Minors: Medical Humanities and Global Health Studies
Organizations: Ambassador, College of Education, Health and Society Vice President, Miami University Gospel Singers
Student Job: Tour Guide, Office of Admissions
Other: Pursuing Global Readiness Certificate

Interested in: health equity, health literacy and promotion
Future Plans: A master's in health promotion or public health, then doctorate in public health


Rafid Pranto

When we get comfortable with sharing uncomfortable topics, when we push the horizon and go beyond our comfort zone, there is a growth opportunity. IDS 253 provides you with that growth opportunity.

International student Rafid Pranto is used to seeking challenges, both personal and academic. A University Honors student, Pranto is also part of the Writing Scholars cohort in the University Academic Scholar Program, which offers access to distinguished faculty mentors and cutting-edge research experiences. His major in Data Science and Statistics reflects a grounding in traditional science, far removed from peer-learning.

But two experiences led him to sign up for IDS 253 to satisfy the "Intercultural Perspective" requirement of the Global Miami Plan. First, he attended a "Racial Consciousness 101" session in fall 2019, where panels shared their own experiences and insights as students of color at Miami University. "It was eye-opening," Pranto said.

Then a friend, who was also an International Peer Orientation Leader (iPOL) during Pranto's orientation week at Miami University, shared a story on Instagram about IDS 253. Pranto was intrigued by the idea of learning more about race and ethnicity in a small class setting.

"In my country, Bangladesh, the population is fairly racially homogenous. Differences across religion are more of an issue there," he said. "Learning about the oppression of people on the basis of racial and gender identities was new for me."

Pranto faced another challenge. Although he wrote and read English very well, he had been speaking it only for a short time. At first, he found it hard to explain what he was thinking during a class activity.

But soon his fluency increased. "As a non-native speaker, I appreciated the opportunity to improve my English while discussing these difficult topics," he said.

For their GAP, Pranto's team worked on increasing campus-wide awareness about recognizing language as one of the most integral identities of human beings and learning about its interconnection with others. Under the theme #BeTheChangeMiami, their target groups were both undergraduate and graduate students. They distributed digital flyers online, used social media platforms for raising awareness, and collected feedback from the audience.

Pranto found the transition to online learning fairly easy for IDS 253, although he missed some of the group activities that took place at different locations on campus. But like other students, he found the most important lesson in the concept of change.

"This class changed the impressions and stereotypes I had before. There are still very noticeable discriminations in this society. I learned how to respond to microaggression comments and what it truly means to be an ally," he said.

Pranto would like to see more international student participation, as well as a more diverse cohort in general. "Definitely take this class to satisfy intercultural perspective requirements. There are a lot of things to learn," he said.

About Rafid

2019-20 Class Year: Freshman
Major: Data Science and Statistics
Minors: Business Analytics and Computer Science
Organizations: Miami University Student Ambassadors (MUSA), National Residence Hall Honorary (NRHH), Bangladesh Student Association (BSA), Miami University Chess Club
Student Job: Student Assistant, Miami University Campus Services
Other: University Honors Program (UHP), University Academic Scholar Program (UASP)

Future Plans: Pursuing higher degrees in Data Science and continuing career as a researcher in this field

Co-Facilitator Voices

Olivia Snyder

Don't judge by appearances; there are a lot more layers to a person once you get to know them. Be open, have dialogues about difficult topics like gender and race. Instead of getting angry and arguing with someone, choose dialogue.

The opportunity to co-facilitate Voices is open to graduate students, seniors and juniors only. After receiving an email from the Honors program, junior Olivia Snyder decided to apply. One of her roommates had previously taken the course, so felt that she had an idea of what to expect.

But one thing she didn't expect was facilitating an online course.

She had trained with her co-facilitators, Samuel Van Vleet and Pankhuri Aggarwal, to be able to sit down and have a dialogue about the various topics the course offers. But before they could even meet their students, their cohort needed to move online due to COVID-19.

"Other cohorts had at least a few in-person sessions before moving, so ours got off to a rocky start. We didn't even know what anyone looked like," she said.

After looking at blank screens labeled with a name during that first week, she and the other facilitators made a new rule: cameras must be on.

As part of Snyder's training as a co-facilitator, she had done all the activities that were planned for the students. She knew that they were missing out on some of the visceral impact of those activities.

"For example, we ask students to give testimonies of their experiences as we sit in a circle. We take about 30 seconds of reflective silence before moving on. It's uncomfortable yet profound; you grasp the importance of what you just heard," she said.

But in the virtual realm, you look out at rows of onscreen faces staring straight ahead. It's uncomfortable, but for a different reason.

"It was disappointing to lose those things, but I like that we've adjusted and grown with alternatives," she said.

In fact, as time went on, Snyder noticed that student engagement around their identity topic, gender, was based on real interest, not merely to satisfy a requirement.

Both Aggarwal and Van Vleet are graduate students, with teaching experience. Snyder looked to them for leadership and guidance, and appreciated the dynamics of the relationship. "Even though I am an undergrad, I'm not excluded; we work as a team. We help each other."

And because she is an undergrad, Snyder eagerly encourages others to take the course. But if you think it is merely a chance to talk about your feelings, think again.

"The core of Voices (IDS 253, IDS 151, and Intro to Voices program) is to foster dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect," she said. "You have engaging open conversations with people and get to know them on a personal level. Thinking about a topic through another person's perspective opens your eyes to the world."

About Olivia

2019-20 Class Year: Junior
Major: International Studies
Minor: Spanish and Latin American Studies
Organizations: Secretary, Red Dragons Martial Arts Club
Student Job: Building Manager, Armstrong Student Center
Other: SIT Study Abroad | Indigenous Peoples and Globalization Program

Interested in: diplomacy, international relations, government

Future Plans: Hopes to work one day in translation, interpretation, and diplomatic relations

Samuel Van Vleet

When you're talking with a group there's a lot of body language. On a computer, you can't see that. And as soon as two people start talking at once, you hear nothing. What students will take away from this course is how to listen.

When Texas native Samuel Van Vleet and his two co-facilitators learned that the carefully-planned face-to-face Voices class (IDS 253, IDS 151, and Intro to Voices) they were planning to co-facilitate was now fully online, they asked themselves a question.

"What would you want as a student right now to make this worthwhile?"

Van Vleet wondered if students would shut down without the benefit of in-person ice-breakers that the other cohorts had experienced.

But his teaching philosophy stayed the same: meet students where they're at. The co-facilitators postponed the first class meeting in order to revise assignments and accommodate virtual learning.

"We discussed that we wanted to have a very open dialogue," he said. "For now, we really wanted to focus on embracing how awkward technology is and how difficult the subject (gender identity) is. We told our students 'This is going to be weird. Let's do this the best we can.'"

Their first class session was audio only; students didn't turn on their webcams. It was not at all what the facilitators had prepared for. But then an interesting thing happened.

COVID became part of the discussion: how will parents take care of children home from school? How will healthcare be provided? How will disadvantaged people cope with the virus?

"By the end of the session, we (co-facilitators) were blown away. They had all decided to dive right in," he said.

Van Vleet brings years of experience to his role as co-facilitator. As an undergraduate at the University of North Texas, he majored in psychology with a minor in applied gerontology. His research centers on race and gender across the lifespan. The intersectionalities of age, religiosity, gender, socioeconomic class, and race fascinate him. Having served as a facilitator of a racial dialogue group at UNT, he was eager to take on a similar role at Miami.

In his graduate studies at Miami, he is working on a manuscript that explores microaggressions in the classroom, as well as a separate study of comic book stereotypes, particularly around female superheroes.

Van Vleet praises the work that Tarah Trueblood and program coordinator Alicia Castillo Shrestha have done to build the Voices of Discovery program. "They care about this program; they have their own fire lit for it," he said. "Being around them makes me want to step up to the challenge to be great as well."

"This course is so needed, especially in today's climate," he said. "As a mentor of mine used to say, 'We often think that battles are won, while the war is still raging.' This is a course that tells you to 'shake it up and see what happens'."

About Samuel

2019-20 Class Year: PhD student in Social Gerontology
Undergraduate Degree: Psychology, with a minor in Applied Gerontology, University of North Texas.
Research Focus: Cumulative disadvantages among underrepresented groups in later life