The Emory Conversation Project: Building Student Confidence to Lead Campus Dialogues

June 14, 2024

Photo of Lydia SmithLydia Smith, Associate Director of Campus Engagement at the Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue at Emory University, has been supporting students to facilitate difficult conversations through collaborative discussion skill building. She leads the Emory Conversation Project (ECP) which aims to create space and support for difficult topics to be engaged while fostering understanding and connection.

Initially, Lydia relied on her debate experience to design activities for the ECP’s 15-20 student participants each year. However, after attending the Interactivity Foundation’s Summer Coach Training, she began to incorporate more interactive activities that were intentionally designed to support collaborative discussion skill building.

The format of the online training allowed Lydia to participate while managing her on-campus duties. The training introduced her to the Collaborative Discussion Toolkit, a collection of curriculum designed by educators for educators. Organized in modules, activities are intentionally designed to advance creative, critical, culturally responsive, and civic collaboration skills. The training showcased how to layer and weave activities together to create an impactful learning experience for her students.

Lydia was eager to implement what she learned and transformed the ECP with her newfound resources and support of a network of like-minded educators and practitioners. She crafted a tiered certificate program, allowing students to progress to more complex discussions and earn a second certification level in their second year. The toolkit activities from the Interactivity Foundation proved to be a hit, not just with the ECP but with a wide range of student groups seeking to incorporate dialogue into their activities.

The impact was undeniable. Over 25 students had completed at least one certificate program, with another 15 on the way next year. These students emerged not just with a certificate they could add to their resume but with a newfound confidence in their communication skills. Active listening and thoughtful engagement became second nature. “Confidence is key,” Lydia explained, “especially for students who might shy away from difficult conversations. The program equips them with the skills to have healthy dialogue, and that comes from training developed by experts.”

The students themselves became active facilitators of dialogue across campus. During Martin Luther King week, Lydia’s students collaborated with the Office of Civic Engagement to organize a campus-wide discussion on radical love, drawing over 60 students, faculty, and staff. In another instance, ECP student facilitators partnered with the theater department and led a talk-back session for 150 attendees following an immersive theater experience.

The success of the program resonated with Emory’s administration. The independent accreditation of the certificate program was a point of pride, and they began exploring ways to expand the reach of purposeful dialogue on campus. The administration has added a pre-orientation program rooted in the Interactivity Foundation’s Collaborative Discussion Toolkit, which introduces a debate and dialogue track, and is working to incorporate a certificate program into a required first-year class so all students will receive the benefits of this training.

Matthea Boon, a student participant at Emory, captured the program’s essence perfectly. “This program gave me life skills,” she declared. “I’m a better listener and a more thoughtful responder in every conversation I have. The training helps me create productive discussions and positive environments, and that’s something I’ll carry with me always.”

Lydia’s innovative approach proved that co-curricular Collaborative Discussion Certificate Programs were more than just a one-and-done class discussion—they were springboards for students to cultivate essential communication skills and can help foster a culture of dialogue that extends far beyond the classroom walls.

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