President’s Column

President Jacquelyn S. Fetrow

Let’s Talk: The value of difficult conversations

Difficult conversations on topics that lend themselves to differing viewpoints are, well, difficult. Race, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, class, religion, age, disability, mental health — conversations on topics like these can be quite uncomfortable. As humans, we have difficulty having these conversations.

Think about your own experiences since graduating from Albright. How often have you found yourself having a difference of opinion with a colleague, friend, family member or neighbor, and how did you handle those difficult conversations? How often have you avoided the conversation at the holiday dinner table or at the office?

That’s exactly what we shouldn’t do! Indeed, understanding and valuing the differences between us helps to fully recognize our humanity in all its glory and imperfections. Consequently, there is intrinsic value in learning how to have these conversations: how to engage in discourse that is honest, civil and respectful, even — or especially — when there is disagreement. In the best of all worlds, this is one of the enduring values of the liberal arts educational experience.

The question is, do today’s students — the Gen Z or iGen generation as they have been called in the literature — want to have difficult conversations?

Jean Twenge, Ph.D., author of “iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy — and completely unprepared for adulthood,” has focused her recent work on this question. Professor Twenge, who presented her research at Albright last fall and is featured in this issue of the Reporter, says, “Protecting students from distress is considered more important to iGen’ers than discussing potentially uncomfortable ideas in college classrooms.” In her book, she goes on to say that “as students resist the traditional notion that they, too, are responsible for their own safety and push for bans on uncomfortable feelings and discussions, it’s important for college teams to edify iGen’ers to the concept that challenging pre-conceived notions results in confidence-building and, most importantly, learning.”

“The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues. It will come from valuing our differences and the creative possibilities inherent in them.” – Parker J. Palmer, author and activist

Indeed, colleges like Albright must be intentional in educating students about the value of civil dialog and in teaching the skills that allow for such discourse. At Albright, our faculty endeavor to bring meaningful discussions into the classroom every day. Outside of the classrooms, faculty facilitate Experience events and other guest lectures to further engage student thinking and dialog. And, starting last year, Albright’s Council for an Inclusive, Thriving and Equitable Community (CITE-C) held a series of CITE-C socials.

Some of these socials were aimed at helping students enhance their ability and willingness to have difficult conversations. This past year’s topics included growing one’s emotional intelligence and racial and ethnic diversity. For this coming year, CITE-C will continue this series, and has already lined up discussions on immigrant detention, autism awareness and queer art history. This is one of the things Albright does so very well — providing an environment to engage in conversations that require critical thinking, reasoning, empathy, civility, understanding and effective communication — which plays an integral role in helping our students move on to successful lives and careers.

Despite the research that says our iGen students do not want to engage in uncomfortable conversations, in this issue of the Reporter, you’ll hear from some of our own students, such as Jonathan Ruiz ’20 and alumnus Enosh Motachwa ’19, who buck that trend and feel that it’s important to talk it out, both for personal relationships and to better the larger community. Both of these fine students served on CITE-C this past year, and Johnny continues to do so.

I’m grateful to, and proud of, these Albright “iGen’ers” who have stepped up, served on CITE-C and have been leaders in engaging difficult conversations both with their peer groups and with the administration.

Best regards,

Jacquelyn S. Fetrow, Ph.D. ’82
President and Professor of Chemistry