Fourth-year student Grace Aheron said the most important and formative experience she’s had at the University of Virginia is being involved with Dialogue Across UVA, a collaborative forum for students, faculty and staff aimed at fostering a caring community.
During each of the last five semesters, members of the U.Va. community have participated in small discussion groups devoted to a theme, such as violence prevention.
Aheron led the team of volunteers this year that planned the groups – sending out invitations to join, then organizing participants in the facilitated conversations that met about six times over each semester. The planning team also solicits and trains volunteers to act as facilitators, two for each group, usually a student and an employee.
The program also includes a potluck dinner midway through the session and an end-of-semester lunch to allow participants from the various groups to meet each other.
At this year’s final gathering on April 19, Aheron told the participants she now understands how meaningful it is to be an active part of a community, to be open to making connections and sharing experiences and perspectives.
“It’s a special space for faculty, staff and students to come together,” she said. “It has informed my sense of place in the world and how to affect change.
“I truly believe it’s making U.Va. a better place,” she said, adding that many students and staff don’t often have the opportunity to get to know each other. “I became friends with people who work here and learned to empathize with staff.”
The dialogues have covered issues of gender, race, U.Va.-Charlottesville relations, power and privilege on Grounds, faith and spirituality, socioeconomic class, U.Va.’s “community of trust” and student-faculty-staff relations, as well as violence and bystander intervention.
Second-year student Heather Berg, who facilitated a group on faith and spirituality in the U.Va. community, said she would recommend a dialogue group to anyone and everyone. Dialogue Across UVA made it feel more like a family, a home, here, she said. Getting to know employees she wouldn’t otherwise have met has been a positive experience, and she appreciated the “incredible insight and depth” of the group’s conversations, she said.
“It’s all about relationships,” said Gay Lynn Tonelli, who works in Human Resources Consulting Services and facilitated a group with Berg. The dialogue members were forthcoming and accepting of each other’s differences, she said.
“There was an amazing openness and willingness to share deep and meaningful beliefs and feelings. I think the reason is because the dialogue [format] created a safe environment for people to speak and an immediate trust,” Tonelli said.
Added John Alexander, another participant: “We are changed when we speak about what is meaningful for each of us and listen deeply to the connections that we are making to each other.” Alexander, associate director of SHANTI, the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, is a member of the planning team.
About 400 people have participated in dialogue groups of up to 15 members since the first groups met in fall 2010. Sessions are offered on different days and at different times of day. Typically, six or eight groups meet in a given semester.
The initiative was started when a group of students, faculty and staff recognized the need to extend the conversations held during the September 2010 “Day of Dialogue.”
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, who spearheaded the Day of Dialogue, at that event emphasized the importance of creating a caring community. “The conversations that we began on the Day of Dialogue will continue in the days, weeks and years ahead. We must continue to ask the question, ‘Are we a caring community?’ And we must make a commitment to ourselves, and to each other, that we will keep working together until the answer to that question is a resounding ‘Yes.’”
“We are lucky to have great administrative support and a wide-ranging network of active members,” Alexander said.
Those interested in becoming a facilitator should email firstname.lastname@example.org. In early fall, planners will collect names of those who want to join a dialogue group.