A program at Shenandoah University fosters an environment in which students and faculty are learning how to hold thorough, meaningful and thoughtful conversations within a larger world that is often defined by polarizing debate.
For the last five years, Shenandoah Conversations has built a culture of respectful, constructive dialogue in classrooms, on SU’s campus and in the local community. The program follows the Reflective Structured Dialogue model, a tool that teaches individuals how to confront complex and sometimes controversial topics with curiosity, mutual understanding and respect.
Shenandoah Conversations encourages everyone at the university to encounter ideas and perspectives in many different ways, engage in civil dialogue about important issues, and express newfound understanding through reflection.
Since its inception in 2018, 178 courses at SU have formally implemented Shenandoah Conversations at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and nearly 3,000 students have participated. Almost 130 faculty and staff members, and 259 students – called Shenandoah Conversations fellows – have been trained to facilitate reflective structured dialogue.
Shenandoah Conversations has remarkably shaped the way I engage in difficult conversations in my classes in a way that I never thought possible: 100% participation from students who humanize differences with their stories, and connect with each other through curiosity. I am moved by all these thoughtful dialogues, and also by how our students, faculty and staff have embraced this important program. Not in my wildest dreams I would have thought five years ago that so very many people would have welcomed civil dialogue with open arms at a time of such high societal divisiveness. Thanks to the hundreds of people who have made this possible!”
Adela Borrallo-Solis, Ph.D., professor of Hispanic studies and director of Shenandoah Conversations
Recently, Shenandoah Conversations co-sponsored a Beyond the Classroom event with the university’s religion program –“Let’s Talk About Religion: A Shenandoah Conversation.” Seventy-five students attended the event, which emphasized the importance of continuing to talk about religion 22 years after 9/11 and encouraged students to reflect on how their own backgrounds and experiences have shaped their views on religion, and what they’ve learned from conversing with others who come from different religious backgrounds.
Other Shenandoah Conversations events held throughout the past five years include a screening and discussion of the documentary “The Abortion Talks” as part of a series on reproductive health and individual rights sponsored by SU’s criminology and criminal justice program; the “What Makes A Great President?” discussion during the College of Arts and Sciences’ “One Big Question” series; the Eleanor Wade Custer School of Nursing’s 2019 Cultural Care Conference and Celebration, titled “Interfaith Dialogue and Nursing Care of the Muslim Patient;” and a Virginia’s American Council on Education (ACE) Women’s Network meeting.
“Shenandoah Conversations fosters a campuswide appreciation for the power of active listening. In a world so divided, it can be hard at times to perceive a middle ground. However, by humanizing the experiences of those different from you, students can gain a greater understanding and respect for viewpoints different from yours. Reflective Structured Dialogue gives students the tools to engage in an empathetic and understanding way on and off campus actively and with confidence – this trait will set students apart as they enter society after graduation. I love Shenandoah Conversations because it has allowed me to learn so much about others and also to look inward and become more aware of what core values I hold close. I am grateful to get to play a role in facilitating this growth.”
Zoe Johnston ’25, exercise science student and Shenandoah Conversations fellows coordinator
Students who have participated in Shenandoah Conversations praise the experience, with many noting that it made them better listeners, helped dispel misconceptions and exposed them to viewpoints that differ from their own.
Many students have been in settings in which their voice is not being heard. In Shenandoah Conservations, everyone has the floor to speak. This may be one of the first times that a student feels comfortable enough to voice their opinion in class, and I’m proud to be a part of something that provides that opportunity. Setting boundaries and having expectations in a discussion allows for respect, something that is crucial in our dialogues. I’ve learned that sometimes what you say is less important than how you listen to others. My favorite part is seeing students who have never spoken with each other before relating over their similar beliefs or lived experiences. It tells me that regardless of background or area of study, we all have a lot more in common than meets the eye.”
Clint Curfman ’24, vocal performance student and Shenandoah Conversations fellow
As a part of Shenandoah Conversations, I have the privilege of fostering meaningful connections between students. By setting firm foundations for the dialogue, students are able to be open, honest, and unfiltered with each other. In this space, students are able to reveal their authentic selves. Students learn from one another’s diverse life stories, experiences, and perspectives. This program has created a unique educational experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this transformative program, where students not only learn from the curriculum, but also from one another.”
Cara Chaney ’24, exercise science student and Shenandoah Conversations fellow