UNL Program Brings Civility to Political Discourse on Campus

Jan. 8, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

UNL student program pushes civil discourse. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

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A program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is aiming to foster civility and discourse on campus by bringing students from different political ideologies together for one-on-one meetings. It's part of a wider movement across campus. NET's Brandon McDermott spoke with Association of Students of the University of Nebraska (ASUN) Internal Vice President Jared Long about how his organization is helping that process.

Brandon McDermott: How does the Converge program work and how long have you been involved with it?

Jared Long: Converge Nebraska is sponsored by ASUN student government at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It's a program we started in the fall of 2018, which basically pairs two students of different political ideologies together to have a conversation about how to disagree respectfully, in today's political environment.

McDermott: How are students paired? Are they paired by political ideology, a conservative student with the progressive student, etc?

Long: We do our best to make sure that students tend to be on different ends of the spectrum. When students sign up, they fill out a Google form, and they take a short little political ideology quiz. We basically determine generally where they lie on the political spectrum. We do our best, including a few other factors of availability and if they prefer a moderator to be present, we pair students together as best we can to be opposite so that they not only have the opportunity to discuss how to disagree respectfully, but hopefully also get into some content discussions as well as where they disagree.

So people can understand that while this person sitting across from me has perhaps very different beliefs for me, there's still a person who almost always has very valid reasons for believing what they believe. If we can kind of segue into those conversations, I think students get a lot more out of the experience.

McDermott: How often do the students meet and how long are these meetings?

Long: We let students meet, we encourage them to meet once. Once students sign up, we pair them together and connect them through email and text. And we leave it up to them to decide what they want their experience in the program to look like so they can meet once. I think most students, you really only meet once, and conversations I think could range from 20 minutes to two hours. We provide a discussion guide with some questions to work through. They can take it in whatever direction they want to. Each student signs up for individual reasons, and we want to make sure that students have the option to get out of the program what they're seeking to get out of it.

McDermott: What does this template, this discussion guideline, what does it include, questions?

Long: So we have 10 questions, and they're pretty broad. None of them are very specific to content or current political issues. It really boils down to, where do you think your political beliefs come from? Is it the way you were raised? Is it your friend group today? Just to kind of promote an understanding that people really do have reasons for believing what they believe.

Once we can kind of get down to understanding those roots, it becomes a lot easier to respect the validity of another person's opinion. So, they're pretty general questions regarding: where do your opinions come from? How do you think they're influenced? How did they develop? We do tend to get into some questions about, what is a common misconception that you think people have about your own political beliefs? And what is the question you have about this person sitting across from you with a different belief? And so it's pretty open ended.

McDermott: Does it not only allow folks to maybe have an open mind to the other side, but also look at their own beliefs with a critical eye?

Long: I think so. I really hope that's one thing that people get out of the program, it really is a two way street, you have to understand that this person, if you want this person sitting across from you to respect your own opinions. First of all, you have to be kind of self-aware and understand what those are. But at the same time, you have to be able to respect this person sitting across from you.

McDermott: Have there been any issues with the matching students or the meetings between students?

Long: Not really, since we kind of leave it up to students to get together on their own accord, I know sometimes people get busy and I think meetings, maybe they aren't able to find a time to meet once. So I think students will sign up and they'll get paired. There's not a lot of requirement on our end as a facilitative organization to require them to go through with it. So sometimes people just I think, decide, yeah, I'm not sure I want to go ahead and do it. But by and large people follow through with the program and do those meetings.

McDermott: What kind of feedback have you heard from students who've taken part in Converge?

Long: Students who participate absolutely love it. We take a follow-up survey, would you consider doing this again, this fall? Everyone who filled out our feedback survey said yes or probably that they would participate again, in Converge Nebraska. And there's never been anyone who says no, I never want to do this again.

So one, we want to see how students are feeling about it. But we also want to challenge them to reflect on the experience. So we say, what did you get out of this? What did you learn? And people are very appreciative of the opportunity to intentionally sit down with somebody of a different perspective to talk about how we can either reconcile differences or respect differences.

McDermott: You alluded to the country being pretty politically charged right now. How's the political atmosphere on campus?

Long: By and large, I think it's at a good place. There's always room for improvement but at the end of the day, while we have very different ideas on policies, perhaps, we can all agree on the importance of civic engagement and promoting the student voice. I'm very encouraged to see that at the University of Nebraska, there is a lot of great collaboration among the different political student organizations, which I think is representative of the fact that UNL is a place where we're open to good discussion, disagreeing respectfully and learning from people who are different from us.

McDermott: How does that help when it comes to seeing it on the micro level that the university is one university. You are all University of Nebraska students, you're not libertarians, you're not conservatives, you're not progressives. We think about that on the wider, macro level that sometimes we can become tribal in our political beliefs. How does that help dispel that? How does that help fight that?

Long: I think, you know, just as the students at the University of Nebraska, we're one community as, as Americans, we're one country and at the end of the day, we have very different beliefs on policies and what is best for the country. But everyone wants what is best for the country.

I think that sparking conversations about how we achieve what is best for the country is the important part and to not get bogged down in this notion that this person sitting across from me who is on the opposite end of the spectrum from me, doesn't want what's best for the country, because once it starts becoming that, it's personally charged like that, it's really hard to have constructive conversations.

I think there's a lot of parallels between how the University of Nebraska exemplifies a collaborative community where we political student organizations, one group is going to be supporting the Democrat nominee in 2020 one group is going to be supporting the Republican nominee in 2020, but we still want to make sure that students are voting and students are making their voices heard, because that's what is most beneficial in the long run.

It doesn't matter who wins, who loses. We need people to be engaged. One way to make Americans more engaged, is to try to rid the system of this, just the hate and the personal attacks, and really focus on what policies can we pursue, what is best for the country and focus on how we can achieve what the country needs as a whole.

McDermott: Do you feel like Converge Nebraska helps students come out of these meetings with other students on the other side of the aisle from them, and take that back into the classroom so they can have a more open discussion and more of an open mind to other ideas?

Long: I think it does and I would certainly hope it does. And based on the feedback we've heard, I think it does. Students who are pursuing a college degree take classes with a wide array of people and it doesn't matter what class you're in. Something could come up that's controversial and knowing how to talk about that, whether it's related to politics or something else, is really important.

Converge Nebraska gives participants the skills to navigate this conversation so that they can then apply when those situations come up in the classroom.