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One of the great aspects of Middlebury is that it provides almost unlimited opportunities for students to grow—to engage with others, to learn about different viewpoints, and to gain self-knowledge. From guest lectures to symposia to open meetings to retreats, the options go on and on.

By the time students graduate, if they have taken advantage of these, they have gained powerful exposure to a much wider community of people than they had known before. They have hopefully improved their ability to work with others and have developed a better understanding of themselves as well.

However, most of these opportunities are voluntary—you have to opt in to get the benefit. Certainly not everyone can be at everything, and you should be able to choose. But, I often wonder if there aren’t some things that we all should be a part of together. Consider some numbers: Mead Chapel was packed on January 9 when Angela Davis delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address. It was marvelous that about 700 people came out on a cold night to listen to her ideas about justice and freedom (whether they agreed with her or not), to be in conversation with her, and to challenge her ideas as well. Yet, that 700 represents a fraction of the campus community.

Then the following Saturday, 120 students, mostly first-years, participated in the second annual JusTalks program. With the help of a professional facilitator and trained student facilitators, these students courageously put themselves in an unknown environment where they challenged themselves to engage in dialogue about the complex subject of identity. I don’t know anyone who didn’t find the experience to be valuable. Again, the number who participated is a fraction of our total students.

Which brings me to an idea I’ve been considering: Perhaps having a difficult dialogue about issues of identity and community is one of those things that we should all be part of. Perhaps we should require all first-year students to participate in JusTalks as part of their MiddView Orientation Program.  We make other experiences mandatory because we believe they are central to a 21st-century liberal arts education and because they create shared experience. I believe that JusTalks may be one of those.

The program was developed by students who worked fiercely on an issue they care about: their belief that we need to be in conversation with each other—even if the conversations are hard—and the conversations need to be in person and based on mutual respect. They have gone face to face with fellow students and administrators from all walks of life to make their idea a reality.  They developed and piloted this program in collaboration with administrators, faculty, and staff.  And in my view, JusTalks is a compelling example of the kind of learning experience that every first-year student should have.

That said, I need your help thinking about this: What would be the personal cost if people were going into JusTalks feeling they had to be there instead of being invited and wanting to be there? What are the pros and cons of making JusTalks mandatory?

And if it were mandatory, do you have suggestions for getting full participation?

I look forward to hearing your ideas and to discussing this with you further.

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