Alexandra Nicoletti '19

Learning to Listen

Intergroup Dialogue at St. Lawrence

Madeleine Frank ’19

“In general, people are really bad at having conversations,” says Alexandra Nicoletti ’19. To address this very issue, St. Lawrence University has adopted and expanded a program called Intergroup Dialogue, or IGD.

Nicoletti is the president of Advocates, a student-run organization that provides confidential support and resources to survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking. She is one of the students who has participated in IGD courses. Nicoletti credits her coursework in psychology and gender and sexuality studies as well as her role in Advocates as her motivation for participating in Intergroup Dialogue.

“I think with the current political climate, some of the conversations that come up in classroom discussions can easily take on a debate-like mentality,” Nicoletti says, “which in turn prevents a productive conversation from taking place.”

Mary Jane Smith, associate professor of history and coordinator of African American studies, has spearheaded the development of Intergroup Dialogue on campus over the past eight years by adapting a program originally started at the University of Michigan in 1988. Smith began teaching a course and conducting campus workshops in the spring of 2012, and programming was expanded as a result of the St. Lawrence’s 2014 Presidential Commission on Diversity.

Since then, Valerie Lehr, professor of government and gender and sexuality studies, helped secure funding through a William Randolph Hearst Foundation grant in 2015 and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant in 2017. The programming has evolved into courses and workshops for faculty, staff, and students each semester to help the community navigate potential conflicts and misunderstanding and support healthy, productive dialogue across constituencies.

“During the last three years, we have conducted multiple workshops (two to six sessions each) for community assistants, first-year orientation leaders, athletic team captains, and the Sustainability Program participants,” says Smith, who was recognized for her efforts in 2016 with the University’s prestigious Louis and Frances Maslow Award. “We’ve also conducted workshops for eight different courses across five disciplines, with multiple sessions for some courses.”

Each session is facilitated in a way to encourage open dialogue, foster understanding, and combat misinformation and stereotyping. Intergroup Dialogue varies from other forms of class discussion because it incorporates aspects of self-reflection and societal awareness. Nicoletti describes this as, “talking across differences, being an active listener, and being someone who knows when to make their voice known and when to step back in conversation.”

For Nicoletti, this idea of a “productive conversation” is a large part of IGD, and as the head of Advocates, she uses what she has learned daily. “A lot of our Advocates training promotes active listening, just like IGD. Being able to facilitate dialogue allows our group to have productive conversations about difficult issues and topics on campus.”

When asked why she thinks people need to attend IGD workshops and courses, Nicoletti says, “Taking IGD not only allows people to see conversation from a new perspective, but it teaches people how to truly listen to each other.”