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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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SMC hosts student panel on ‘free expression and belonging’

Five Saint Mary's students discussed free speech, productive dialogue and inclusivity Wednesday evening

On Wednesday evening, five Saint Mary’s College students discussed how to institute healthy dialogue in community conversations and presented their findings from a conference they recently attended at DePaul University. 

The five panelists, Katie Theriault, Ivory Munoz, Angelina Wright, Anaís Juliano and Kayli Zelinske-Mader were chosen to go to the conference because of their previous experiences with student leadership at Saint Mary's and their experiences with The Dialogue Project, an organization which strives to create “intimate conversations” within communities.

Moderated by philosophy professor Megan Zwart, the panelists discussed their experiences at the conference, their takeaways and how they want to implement the lessons they learned at Saint Mary’s and the tri-campus. Zwart argued for the need to balance free expression and inclusivity.

“When you’re talking about free expression, you’re also making sure that you’re creating inclusive climates at the same time,” she said.

Each of the five panelists shared why they chose to take part in the conference, referencing their leadership roles with student government, residence life and SMC college democrats, among organizations.

Wright described her generation as “reactive not proactive."

"They aren’t able to hear out other people’s voices,” she said.

Theriault stressed the need to understand where differing opinions come from.

“Starting off [a] conversation with where you’re coming from, really help[s] it be productive,“ she said. “It was easier to understand as someone got more heated about something or if they were like ‘I really disagree with this.’”

All of the panelists stressed the importance of relationship building, both as a college community and within interpersonal relationships. 

Referencing Saint Mary's since reversed policy of allowing transgender students to enroll at the college, Juliano said the issue is not settled for some people on campus.

“Sometimes we think that the conversation is over because we had a conversation, but sometimes people aren’t ready for it to be over,“ she said.

Munoz explained building relationships can make moments of crisis easier to manage.

“We build relationships before a crisis, so when crisis occurs, we can address it effectively,” Munoz said.

Although the panelists agreed Saint Mary’s, as a whole, engages in productive conversations, they also pointed to areas of improvement.

“The thing … that could be improved upon though is having those difficult conversations in classrooms where you aren’t always agreeing,” Zelinske-Mader said. “Whether it’s from students, even just those that are here [at the panel], you can take an extra step to ask the hard, difficult questions without having the fear of being canceled.”

The panelists mentioned that having low stakes conversations in the dining hall, the classrooms and dorm buildings all build up the necessary skills to have these conversations.

The Observer spoke to Saint Mary’s College President Katie Conboy after the event, who emphasized the importance of hearing differing perspectives.

“If students could all be exposed to these ways of thinking, then Saint Mary’s would be this kind of unstoppable model for how these kinds of conversations can happen,” she said.

Referencing the discussion about the College's reversed admissions policy, Conboy stressed the need for the administration to be “especially attuned to what our community needs in terms of dialogue.“ 

“Sometimes we may accidentally cut things off not even thinking [we’re doing so], but thinking that people are satisfied with where we are, and they aren’t necessarily,” she said.