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OIA Global Dialogues: Change starts with a conversation

Natalie Vinski Ibrahim, shares her experience conducting Global Dialogues during International Education Week to promote empathy and understanding among UMD students.

When asked about what they’ll carry forward from the practice of Global Dialogues, students had this to say: “I plan to use my newfound global knowledge to be a better person and student;” “I learned how to safely and respectfully ask people about their identities when I am curious;” “I will be open to others ideas and listen empathically.” These are only a few of the perspective shifts that took place during the Honors Global Communities (HGC) recent Global Dialogues story circles, highlighting the importance of fostering human connection through conversation, creating empathy, and learning through the lived experiences of others.

The hub of HCG in Dorchester Hall is buzzing with globally-minded undergraduates. As a part of the Office of International Affairs (OIA) effort to integrate Global Dialogues into International Education Week (IEW) this year, Natalie Vinski Ibrahim, associate director for the University of Maryland’s Global Communities Living Learning Program, hosted story circles for all sections of her HGLO100 class this past Tuesday. The overarching goal of IEW is to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide, and Global Dialogues are events and activities–during IEW and beyond–aimed at creating a foundation of conversation and connection to address global grand challenges. They are just one of many ways in which OIA is working to reimagine global learning at UMD, building on the work of International Student & Scholar Services, Education Abroad, the Global Classrooms program, and the recent establishment of the office of Global Learning Initiatives.

The story circle is a tool that centers on participants sharing lived experiences to build global competencies and human connection. In short, a story circle encourages participants to have a low-stakes conversation about the lives of those in their small group. The exercise is timed, with participants speaking in uninterrupted bursts of time, ranging from 1-3 minutes, then the group is opened up. Something about this exercise that is unique is the incorporation of flashbacks, where participants share what stood out to them most in hearing the stories of others. 

Two things proved to be the universal unifiers of these discussions: sports and food. Many students spoke at length about how they bonded over different types of food, different sports they’re involved in, and even different holidays that center these activities. The relationships that students have with these topics specifically are informed by their own cultures, and participants were eager to learn from each other about new holidays, family traditions, and more. When asked about how their perspective has changed after completing the story circle, one student said, “I used to think that food choice was just a preference, but now I think food is a good indicator of culture.” 

Sometimes it can be challenging to foster truly organic conversations in the structured setting of a classroom. A few participants expressed that they felt this discussion taking place in the classroom discouraged them from speaking openly about their experiences. However, one thing that the participants and facilitators could agree on was that these conversations do matter, and they should be happening more often. 

“Dialogue is imperative to reaching any sort of critical understanding or learning, no matter what academic discipline or professional field,” said Ibrahim. 

This is a sentiment that is also shared by participants, and the active listening, critical thinking, and collaborative skills that are developed in these story circles have direct applications inside and out of the classroom. On his first day, President Pines called the campus community to action: to solve the grand challenges of our time, we have to unite and actively listen to each other. Through these conversations, within the Global Dialogues and beyond, UMD students are encouraged to think critically about their own and others identities as they move through the world to make it a better place. 

Outside of the classroom, there are weekly recurring opportunities such as ISSS’ International Coffee Hour, Joe with Jody, the Language House Language Chats and more. Engagement opportunities such as these are crucial to help us find creative ways to reimagine learning. Any limitations in these exercises can be mediated by the continued practice of global dialogues. In the interest of empowering the next generation of fearlessly global students, it’s clear that lived experiences cannot be replicated through a reading, discussion post, or an essay. Dedicating classroom time to build empathy and create an environment of openness is an investment that pays off in not just cultivating better students, but better people.

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