WASHINGTON, PA (Jan. 30, 2017) – In every class he teaches, Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) Political Science Professor James Benze, Ph.D., encourages his students to be responsible citizens, aware of and invested in what is going on in the world. He sets time aside in each class to discuss social issues or politics. All sides get equal time to express their opinions, and he ensures that everyone is respected.
“I think it is important for students to learn to listen to the ideas of others as well as express their own ideas. If they truly listen, they will begin to see others as people too (just ones that view the world differently),” he said. “They might even begin to see areas in which they can agree. Obviously this kind of discourse is sadly lacking in politics today, and if we don’t teach students to listen, things will only get worse instead of better.”
At W&J, discussions like these often begin in classes like Dr. Benze’s, but they don’t stop there. Creating an inclusive environment conducive to tackling world issues is something W&J students work hard to put into action.
Following Election Day, W&J students created an event for their peers to have open discussion about election results. The Black Student Union (BSU), Latino Cultural Association (LCA), and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) organized the forum, recognizing that while some were excited for what the changes in office could bring, others were worried about the implications of the newly elected officials.
“As a club that promotes and celebrates a marginalized people, like the LGBT community, we felt it was important to purge the negative feelings from the election, as well as discuss what to do going forward,” said Macie Sowers, president of GSA.
“We thought it would be best to try to get these people in one place where we could just talk about all of this and how we felt,” added senior Kenny Clark, president of BSU. “We discussed our emotions on election night and in the days that followed, as well as our views on certain issues that led us to vote the way we did. We also talked about next steps and things we could do moving forward to stay informed and engaged regarding what was to come.”
Eva Chatterjee-Sutton, Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students said we live in a time when our country is openly grappling with issues of integrity and inclusion, and it is incumbent on institutions like W&J, which champions education and development for all students, to provide safe spaces and resources to explore issues that affect communities on a local, national, and global level.
“At W&J, we aggressively preserve freedom of speech and discourse to allow for multiple perspectives to be heard and considered,” she said. “And, we expect and demand that our community respect and support each other as confront difficult issues individually and collectively.”
Similar forums on campus are planned, and others already are in existence. Each month, the Office of Inclusive Campus Engagement: Diversity & Leadership Initiatives holds Point of View Discussions. These informal discussions are focused on a social issue or an area of diversity such as race, religion, or sexual orientation. The meetings are held the last Sunday of each month in the Media Room.
The LCA holds “Celebracion!” annually to educate students about diversification in Latin-America and how it affects the United States. LCA Secretary Stephanie Velasquez said the group plans to collaborate with other student clubs for a new event that celebrates diversity and educates students about different cultures.
In partnership with the local community, GSA members annually attend Washington County GSA’s Transgender Day of Remembrance Candlelight Walk in honor of National Transgender Day of Remembrance. Macie also noted that she would like to work with the executive members of GSA to hold additional open forums or public discussions to keep the conversation going.
Steph, Macie, and Kenny all agree that it’s important for college students in particular to engage in discussions about diversity, as well as social and political issues. Steph, a senior sociology and Spanish double major, said discussion is one of the best ways for students to understand what is going on in the world.
“The more aware students are about the issues, the more they understand them and the more likely it is for them to find a solution,” she said. “Being involved in discussions like this also creates open minds and lets students see different perspectives, which allows them to be more understanding of people’s situations.”
Kenny echoed her sentiments, noting that college may be the first place some students encounter views, opinions, and belief systems different from their own.
“It is of the utmost importance that we as college students and members of the community have constructive and informative discussions where we can hear someone else’s view and also use new information to begin forming our own,” he said. “These discussions help us to understand that not all people see the world the same way we do, and it’s important to understand that this diversity of thought is what makes us unique.”
Macie also recognizes that engaging in these issues and discussions is one of the best ways to bring informed change.
“Social and political issues affect our lives even at this stage…. I believe we have a responsibility to bring positive change, whether it’s for ourselves, the next generation, the future, or the environment. By becoming involved in discussions about social and political issues, we educate ourselves on multiple views on an issue, and thus are able to make the most beneficial decision for all,” Macie said.
About Washington & Jefferson College
Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.