Student Facilitators Are Helping to Shape the Conversation at Wellesley

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In a moment when holding difficult conversations seems increasingly challenging, Wellesley students are contributing to a growing initiative to build connections across difference and start inclusive discussions throughout the College community.

The Inclusion Initiative, housed within the Office of Intercultural Education, promotes cross-cultural conversations at Wellesley around issues of identity. Each year, the office trains a group of paid peer facilitators to lead 90-minute workshops on topics such as oppression and privilege, racism, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, immigration, and disability and ability awareness.

Dean Inés Maturana Sendoya created the initiative after a listening tour she embarked on when she arrived at Wellesley in 2018.

“Students were saying, ‘We want this dialogue,’” said Karen Shih, assistant dean of intercultural education and advisor to students of Asian descent, who helps coordinate the initiative. “Students were so willing and so ready to have these dialogues, and to learn, and listen.”

The initiative began in fall 2019 with a class of 12 community inclusion facilitators, and it has since grown to 16. The Office of Intercultural Education is now recruiting rising sophomores and juniors, who will be trained by current leaders during weekly meetings throughout the fall semester. They will begin their work by spring.

Lizette Mier ’22, a sociology and education studies double major, has been a part of the initiative from the start. “I applied to be a community inclusion facilitator because I’m interested in pursuing a career in the diversity, inclusion, and belonging field,” Mier said. “I thought it would help give me exposure to different aspects of people’s identity and challenges that they may face, and what challenges others face in understanding and learning more about those identities.”

Mier is particularly enthusiastic about the position being paid. “Many times our society wants this work of educating and holding space for all perspectives for free,” Mier said. “The reality is that this work can be demanding, especially in the beginning as we studied and built the confidence to present to our peers. It is a lot of work behind the scenes, and I appreciate the Office of Intercultural Education valuing our time and effort, and that the workshops themselves are free. This type of work isn’t new, it’s work that people in marginalized groups have always done and continue to do, just largely unpaid. Having facilitator-led community inclusion workshops creates intentional spaces for this work.”

Mier enjoyed the semester-long training process and the ties she forged with her fellow leaders. “Over time, it was clear that the tougher conversations were easier to have since we knew each other more and felt that we had each other’s best interests in mind,” she said. “This is an important part of a successful team: knowing and believing your mates have your best interest at heart so if they correct you about something you said, you learn from it.”

She has facilitated workshops with a variety of campus organizations, including the psychology department, the College crew team, and the Wellesley Democrats.

“The workshops offer a space for people to come in, not know much about a topic, and feel OK to ask questions without judgment,” Mier said. “Our goal during each workshop is to have participants talk about their experiences and realizations. I think it helps to see how interconnected our experiences are, and ways we either may be helping to be more inclusive or that we may not realize are actually harmful to that effort.”

Ann Xu ’22, a neuroscience and physics double major and a member of the inaugural cohort of facilitators, has, like Mier, worked with Wellesley’s crew team, as well as the College’s Presidential Scholars, members of Residential Life, and the Schneider Board of Governors.

Xu first became interested in conversations about identity through her high school English classes that examined the role of race and gender in texts. “While we looked at these issues through the lens of literature, much of what we were reading was also reflected in our daily lives, and it was very eye-opening to hear the challenges that some of my classmates were going through,” she said.

At Wellesley, Xu said, she became a community inclusion facilitator because she wanted to “continue to deepen my learning and understanding about others, recognize how I can best help, continuously expand my empathy, understanding, and respect, even toward those most different from me.”

Jenna Hua ’22, a psychology and education studies double major who joined the first cohort of facilitators, said the collaborative nature of the initiative appealed to her. “I really like their whole emphasis on making sure everyone is fully trained, and that all of the workshops have two facilitators working together,” Hua said. “I was really excited to work alongside some of my peers who are equally as interested in doing this as I am.”

Hua helped the initiative successfully pivot to remote operations when the pandemic hit, and now she is developing new workshops with the biochemistry and psychology departments that respond to their specific needs.

“We created an entire STEM-focused module that draws on our oppression and privilege module and our allyship module, but that is very specific to the experiences of students who have STEM majors at Wellesley,” Hua said. “This semester has been a lot of continuous checking in with the organizations and the students involved to make sure that we are helping them meet their inclusion goals, whatever that may be.”

As the program continues to expand, Hua is especially excited about who is leading the charge. “It is really powerful having students who have lived experience facilitate workshops where they can then use their experience to humanize and contextualize our approach,” she said. “That horizontal power dynamic is really useful for these kinds of conversations. And that’s reflected in how many workshops and workshop requests we’ve received over the last year and a half. People are really dedicated to being the change that we’ve all been talking about. It’s just really great to know that students are open to actively chasing down that kind of change.”