Campus Life

New dialogue series 'Who We Are, All That We Are' fosters tough conversations

Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new monthly series created by Penn State Student Affairs aims to foster meaningful dialogue through conversations about topics that may be new and challenging to Penn State community members.

The series, titled “Who We Are, All That We Are: Community Conversations,” will consist of one-and-a-half hour sessions that aim to engage participants in the foundational skills necessary to have difficult conversations when they are on and off campus.

The dates for the conversations are as follows and will be held in Robb Hall in the Hintz Family Alumni Center:

  • Oct. 12: noon to 1:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 16: 4:30 to 6 p.m.
  • Feb. 16: 4:30 to 6 p.m.
  • March 16: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • April 19: 5 to 6:30 p.m.

The series is open to students, faculty and staff at Penn State’s University Park and Commonwealth Campuses. To sign up for a session, interested attendees must complete the online form. Food will be provided to participants at no cost.

The first session will focus on what a dialogue is, including how dialogue differs from a debate and other forms of conversation and communication. The second session will explore what it means to have a strong sense of one’s values and how that might inform one’s purpose.

The program’s main themes are community, communication and connection, according to Jessica Sumney, assistant director for diversity, equity and inclusion in Penn State Student Affairs. Sumney said the themes should encourage students to understand that no one’s growth is completely individual because we live in an interdependent society.

“We don’t want anyone’s growth to be in a vacuum, and so we’re coming together as a community to grapple with things through conversation that digs a little deeper than maybe a lot of us are used to,” Sumney said. “Penn State has such a broad variety of people, backgrounds and experiences, and we hope to foster ways for our broader community to connect and celebrate those experiences.”

Each session will include experiential activities for attendees to learn about the importance of debriefing a concrete topic, according to Sumney.

“The skills you’re going to learn in this dialogue series are transferrable,” Sumney said. “They’re not only skills you can use to talk about identity and how our identities fit into our larger society — they’re skills you can use any time.”

Sumney and André Culbreath, associate director for diversity, equity and inclusion for Student Affairs and Residential Living, will be the co-facilitators of the sessions. The pair is working to partner with various campus and community organizations to include other facilitators in the dialogues to keep the facilitator-participant ratio balanced and give participants focused attention.

Sumney said these Community Conversations may serve as an opportunity for students to build their confidence before becoming involved with more established, longer term dialogue programs like World in Conversation.

“We’re striving to create a nonjudgmental space,” Sumney said. “We want this to be a space where people say ‘hey, I don’t know if this is going to come out right but we’re going to work through it together.’”

The dialogues are positioned to prepare students for life after Penn State in that they will introduce and challenge different perspectives on tough topics.

“Avoiding a difficult conversation creates a lot more work than having one,” Sumney said. “Having those foundational skills and practicing them in a space where people aren’t judging you makes it so much easier then when the time comes in your life to have that conversation with a sense of confidence.”

Depending on students’ interest as indicated via the sign-up form, the series also may be offered via Zoom to reach a broader audience.

Additionally, there will be monthly tabling activities in on-campus residence halls to give interested students a view of what each dialogue session will cover.

Last Updated October 13, 2021