For first-year students of all backgrounds,
new ways to talk to each other

MIDDLEBURY, Vt.?National policy toward illegal drugs, gender inequities and America’s role in the world are not the topics normally associated with college orientation, which usually includes such activities as tours of the library and registration for fall courses. Yet, it is just these types of provocative topics that first-year students at Middlebury College will tackle during orientation this fall as part of a new program, Deliberative Dialogue, designed to help students learn new ways to discuss and explore controversial subjects and find common ground.

Deliberative Dialogue sessions will take place on Sept. 10 during Middlebury’s orientation, which is being held Sept. 7-11.

Associate Dean of Student Affairs Karen Guttentag, who organizes Middlebury’s orientation, said, “We have students of all backgrounds from all 50 states and more than 70 countries here at Middlebury. They arrive with their own opinions on many important issues and they may never have been exposed to other points of view. Deliberative Dialogue helps students to acknowledge and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different positions, including their own, and find common ground. These are essential skills for our students to master, as diversity of experience, opinion and background will permeate their lives at Middlebury in and out of the classroom.”

Middlebury began using Deliberative Dialogue during the 2004-2005 academic year, when the college’s office of institutional diversity sponsored the program, but this is the first time the college has used it as part of orientation.

To participate in Deliberative Dialogue, students read a brief overview of a particular issue, then each student is asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each of the approaches for addressing the issue at hand. According to Guttentag, a leader, a moderator and a recorder?all Middlebury students?will guide the Middlebury groups through a structured conversation that teaches participants how to hear others’ positions respectfully, and make up their own minds thoughtfully with a goal of discovering common ground.

Forty returning students, some of whom were involved in the program during the previous academic year, returned to Middlebury early to undergo intensive training in preparation for serving as leaders, moderators and recorders.

Jennifer Herrera, an assistant in the Middlebury College Office for Institutional Diversity, helped oversee the Deliberative Dialogue program during the past academic year. Herrera likes the idea of adding the program to orientation for several reasons. She said, “I see students come in and they don’t become active with issues or politics until their senior year. This program will help expose new students to important issues they may never have discussed in depth until their first week here. It also involves the whole incoming class, so a broader spectrum of beliefs will be shared than when we held Deliberative Dialogue events during the 2004-2005 academic year and just those students who chose to attend were there.”

Angelica Towne, a Middlebury College sophomore, attended several of the Deliberative Dialogue sessions last year and volunteered to serve as a student leader during orientation. “There are many people with many different backgrounds at Middlebury,” she said. “You can’t change people in one of these sessions but you can help them understand different points of view. Now that I’ve been to several Deliberative Dialogue sessions, I would approach a conflict in a totally different way. It’s so easy to argue with your personal experience and emotions as an example but Deliberative Dialogue teaches you to stick to ideas and the philosophy behind them.”

“The program also teaches a group how to empower itself without alienating other groups and this can be related back to Middlebury and how we interact here,” added Towne.

The Deliberative Dialogue program is part of the Northern New England Diversity and Community Project, a collaboration between the New England Center for Civic Life at Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire and Vermont Campus Compact, a non-profit statewide organization based at Middlebury that encourages volunteerism and community service as a part of college life. At Middlebury, Deliberative Dialogue has been supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

According to Joni Doherty, director of the New England Center for Civic Life, Deliberative Dialogue has been in existence for 25 years and was originally used only by communities to discuss national public policy issues such as education and health care, but is now also being used at a number of colleges and universities across the country. The center has used Deliberative Dialogue for seven years.