Alfred University’s Common Ground seeks to foster spirit of inclusivity and understanding
Alfred University | 8/23/18
Common Ground, a new program for first-year and transfer students at Alfred University, aims to promote the institution’s long-standing tradition of inclusivity, respect and understanding.
ALFRED, NY – Common Ground, a new program for first-year and transfer students at Alfred University, aims to promote the institution’s long-standing tradition of inclusivity, respect and understanding.
More than 440 first-year students and approximately 70 transfers expected to enroll this fall at Alfred University will take part in Common Ground. The semester-long program, as its name implies, seeks to provide true common ground between students regardless of their diverse backgrounds and academic interests.
“Our primary goal with Common Ground is to get more educational value out of our diversity. We have a unique opportunity here, with students from such different backgrounds – race, region, class, gender and sexuality, plus a variety of academic interests and areas of expertise -- sharing such an intimate space,” said Melissa Ryan, professor of English at Alfred University and co-chair of the Common Ground Steering Committee.
“Common Ground brings students and faculty from all the academic units together, giving incoming students (and the rest of the campus community) a shared intellectual experience. Common Ground can strengthen our sense of who we are and what an Alfred degree means. Part of the Alfred experience should be getting out of and thereby broadening comfort zones; if we can hear each other’s stories – which sometimes means being willing to confront things that are hard to talk about, tensions on campus and in the wider world – we’ll strengthen our community and enrich students’ experience during their time here.”
First-year and transfer students will be required to complete the Common Ground program as part of an extended orientation for their respective school of college. Students will be broken into groups of 18, meeting eight times during the fall semester to engage in small group discussions facilitated by members of the Alfred University administration, faculty and staff. Groups will be formed to balance race, ethnicity, gender, and academic majors.
“Each group will be facilitated by a seasoned faculty/staff member and will focus on making participants more cognizant of the different backgrounds that they bring to Alfred University, thereby promoting greater empathy as well as appreciation for diversity,” said Alfred University President Mark Zupan. “One of the key objectives for each student group also will be for them to identify what values that they want to live by as citizens of our Alfred University community.”
Among the group facilitators are two vice presidents – Kathy Woughter (Student Affairs) and Provost Rick Stephens (Academic Affairs) – and three deans – Beth Ann Dobie (Liberal Arts and Sciences), Gerar Edizel (Art and Design) and Laurie Lounsberry McFadden (Libraries).
“This isn’t a traditional class in that there’s no content to learn, no right answer we’re all supposed to arrive at, no test,” explained Ryan, who will also serve as a group facilitator. “We need to hear all the voices of Alfred – one of our goals is to make sure incoming students know that they matter, that their perspectives matter – and this is only possible in a small group where there’s airtime for all and bonds of trust and respect can form.”
At the beginning of the fall semester, each incoming new student will receive a copy of Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation. The anthology includes major contemporary writers – Roxane Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, Anthony Doerr, Rebecca Solnit, Manuel Muñoz, Richard Russo, and others – writing in multiple genres about divisions in American life and how to rediscover our common humanity. Students will read selections from the book during orientation and throughout the semester, discussing them in group meetings.
In addition to selections from Tales of Two Americas, group discussion will also center on short documentaries, TED talks (influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, tech and creativity) and current events.
Common Ground is being supported in its first year with a $100,000 donation from the University’s Board of Trustees. Funding will cover the costs of training instructors; stipends for instructors, program directors and the steering committee; books and t-shirts; food to be served at each group meeting; and bringing a speaker to campus for a Martin Luther King Day event.
“We are immensely grateful for the significant philanthropic commitment of $100,000 that our trustees collectively have made to fund the inaugural offering of Common Ground, beyond what they already do on behalf of our University,” Zupan remarked. “This commitment builds on our University’s proud heritage of being inclusive from the start and ensures that community and inclusivity will continue to be hallmarks of Alfred University as we approach our third century.”
Greg Connors ’92, chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees, said Common Ground reflects Alfred University’s long-standing commitment to inclusivity and will benefit students by providing a learning environment that welcomes diversity.
“Alfred University has the perfect opportunity with the Common Ground curriculum to build upon the rich history and tradition of inclusion and learning from our diverse student population, given their unique life experiences, backgrounds and academic interests,” Connors commented. “We are proud of our faculty and students for embracing the opportunity to learn from each other. There is no better educational platform to grow, learn, mature and provide the foundation for individuals to fulfill their potential than an immersive interactive setting.”
Ryan said Common Ground will benefit not just incoming students, but the University as a whole.
“Common Ground facilitators participate in professional development sessions that will help us more effectively engage sensitive issues in the classroom. This will also give us the same opportunity students are getting to share stories and discuss complex questions,” she said. “In addition to working closely with students we don’t usually see or in contexts we don’t usually see them in, we’ll strengthen our teaching community by working closely with colleagues across campus.”
Alfred University has a long history of inclusivity: it is the second-oldest co-educational institution of higher education in the country; has a diverse student body; and offers a wealth of activities and programs (academic and co-curricular) available to students of varied backgrounds. Common Ground will strengthen that spirit of embracing diversity while striving to achieve a greater understanding of others.
“Our history of social justice is a commitment we have to live up to through ongoing self-scrutiny, as an institution and as individual community members,” Ryan said. “This program is both the result of that institutional introspection and the structure for continuing it.”
As a pilot program, Common Ground will be assessed at the conclusion of its first year to determine its structure moving forward. “When we evaluate the program’s effectiveness after this initial run, we’ll explore other options – maybe a credit-bearing class – though we’d need to carefully consider the consequences for all students,” Ryan said.
Other members of the Common Ground Steering Committee are: Robert Stein (co-chair), associate professor of social science; Hope Childers, associate professor of art history; Tricia Debertolis, associate dean of students; S.K. Sundaram, Inamori professor of materials science and engineering; and Oumar Soumahoro, assistant dean of the College of Business.