As student affairs professionals, it is our job, and likely our passion, to help students transform themselves from adolescents into motivated, free thinking young adults. It is our responsibility to support the transformation of high school students, memorizing notes to get a “good grade” in a class, to individuals, who have honed their abilities to openly communicate their thoughts and utilize these skills to positively impact the world. Discussing current events is an integral part of this development, whether in a class debate or an informal group conversation.
A few weeks ago, during our #SAchat reflection on Ferguson, a student approached me and asked what I was working on. When I responded that I was partaking in a discussion on Michael Brown and Ferguson, he was completely unaware. It is, unfortunately, all too common for our students to get trapped in a bubble of college life and be ignorant to the events impacting the world around them. This is a prime example of why it is so important to make sure our students are properly prepared to hold conversations on current events, especially when many of these topics tend to be controversial. How can we work toward this goal? My #SAchat final thought advice is “FT: Don’t shy away from tough conversations. Be authentic, open and respectful and the conversations will be rewarding. #SAchat.”
We spend a lot of our time being professional and guiding students as an authority figure. Present these conversations as an opportunity to interact, human to human, not student to supervisor. Earlier this year, when the Ray Rice domestic violence video was dominating the news cycle, I chose to share the video with my staff, as an invitation into a conversation on how to support others who may be in similar situations, both as Resident Assistants and as friends.
Through asking open-ended questions and allowing students to draw on their own personal experiences, the conversation flowed into a sincere discussion on how we can approach and help these issues. Being genuine will allow your students to feel comfortable expressing their true thoughts and will likely strengthen your relationship with them.
It is very possible, even likely, that we enter into these conversations with our own opinions on what is going on in the world. This is not a bad thing, and hopefully we can be authentic enough to express our views. It is important to also enter these conversations with an open-mind and willing to hear all sides of an issue. This does not mean that we have to enter a conversation expecting that our opinion will change. However, being open allows students to realize, through experience, that having different opinions is a wonderful thing, if we are willing to listen to one another.
With all of this authenticity and honesty out in the open, emotions are likely to run high as we all become vulnerable. Maintaining respect for others’ vulnerability may be the most important job that we have when facilitating these conversations. Set ground rules at the beginning of planned conversations, or take a pause to implement some rules if an impromptu discussion gets heated.
Remind students that respect manifests, not only in what you say, but also in how you say it. Encourage them to maintain a calm demeanor and tone of voice, and allow them the opportunity to take a break if they get upset. Prevent students from interrupting one another and allow all students the opportunity to speak. The best way we can support this respectful atmosphere is by role-modeling it ourselves, both during these discussions and in our every day interactions with students.
Understanding current events is imperative for our students to build a global perspective and decipher their place in the world. Discussing these events is an essential part of becoming a free-thinking, successful individual. However, they are not the only ones who can benefit from these conversations. As we open ourselves up to hearing different viewpoints, we can also learn a lot and gain knowledge that we may unintentionally ignore, if it doesn’t support our point of view. Additionally, allowing our vulnerability to show to our students will allow our relationships with them to flourish, which is a reason many of us got involved in this field to begin with. While these conversations may be tough, the rewards – well-prepared students and professional development for us – most definitely outweigh the risks.