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The most meaningful conversations often begin when I say to a student, “Why don’t you tell us more about that?”
I serve as a mentor to a group of young men of all backgrounds and experiences at the University of Richmond. My wife, Betty Neal Crutcher, similarly mentors a group of young women. We each meet monthly. We also convene several times per semester as a united team. Betty has a doctoral degree in cross-cultural mentoring; I try to keep up by leveraging my experience as a university president.
I have long believed in the potential of mentoring. Mentoring connects us as educators to our students in a manner that is spontaneous, timely and genuine. As higher education is increasingly scrutinized for its value and relevance, mentoring provides us the opportunity to share wisdom across generations; foster candor, respect, collaboration, resourcefulness and understanding; and help our students in the transition to future lives of meaning and purpose.
At first glance, it’s easy to clump mentees into stereotypical groups by gender, race or nationality. A student’s religion or political affiliation may emerge within candid discussions; class is often harder to discern. In my groups, students choose the topics they wish to discuss, and nothing is off-limits. Since my arrival in 2015, we have grappled with race and class in our community, the affordability of education, and our collective response to sexual assault, among other important campus issues.
When students volunteer to tell us more, their stories transcend all lines of commonality and difference. For example, an international student didn’t understand the barriers faced by a first-generation American college student until the latter poignantly shared her shame in not having parents or siblings to guide her transition, as so many of her classmates did.
Several students of color debated the ease and challenges of acclimating to the university’s social culture, as two majority-race classmates -- one from a populous East Coast city and the other a small, rural town in the Southwest -- articulated nearly identical enthusiasms and concerns. Two young scholars, vocally committed to different political ideologies, united to promote a shared cause for environmental stewardship.
In their emerging intellectual lives, students sometimes cling to familiar social structures -- engaging only with individuals who look or talk like them, consuming media that reinforces their own beliefs, or avoiding conversations that cause discomfort. Homogeneous thought, lingering indifference and even fear of failure have a dynamic pull.
But the college campus pulls in another direction, offering an ideal environment for abandoning existing biases and seeking out people of different backgrounds and perspectives.
Students learn best when they’re challenged to tackle hard questions and have tough conversations, and when they have these conversations in thoughtful ways. Academic institutions are unusually positioned, and have a distinct responsibility, to model substantive and civil disagreement. But civility must not be code for quieting others’ opinions. Rather, it must be a call for an energetic exchange of ideas within our richly diverse academic communities. What we have found in our mentoring groups is that, given the opportunity, and supported by faculty, staff and peers who care about them, students are often eager to share and willing to change their minds. The experiences we provide our students in laboratories of all sorts offer a rich environment for constructive disagreement that yields new insights that can benefit our nation and world.
In a recent survey of prospective students, which we commissioned, engaging in active discussion with people who represent a variety of experiences and perspectives emerged as a particularly desirable characteristic for any college or university. That affirmation from our students is significant and, considered most optimistically, may indicate that the time is right for a more courageous approach to difficult conversations on all of our campuses.
I believe strongly in education that exposes our students to new experiences as a means of better understanding themselves, their fellow citizens and the knotty and complicated facets of our democracy. As educators and institutional leaders, it’s important to model the behaviors we wish to inculcate in our students. I don’t think there is a simple answer to address the complexities we encounter -- on our campuses and in our world -- but mentoring groups such as ours are easily replicable and represent a clear path forward that is rife with possibility.
Today, at Richmond and across the nation, students are ready to have candid and civil conversations across lines of difference. In our mentoring groups, and on our campuses, they are acquiring the knowledge, skills and dispositions to lead us effectively in the future. At a time when stridency threatens to replace civility as normative in our public discourse and our debates, no lesson may be more timely or important than this one.