(Posted October 24, 2016)

At right, Grace Fala, professor of communication, and Loreyta Ross, a guest speaker talk to a student.
At right, Grace Fala, professor of communication, and Loreyta Ross, a guest speaker talk to a student.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. – Beginning in spring semester 2016, a new course, titled, “LEAD” has been challenging students at Juniata College to become better leaders in the community, by teaching them how to become more empathetic towards situations other people might face.

 Grace Fala, the special assistant to the President for diversity and inclusion and professor of communication, teaches the course. She believes that by learning to listen, students can become better leaders.

Inspiration for the course came from Fala’s experience teaching a health communication class. She handed out index cards to her students, and asked them to anonymously record their family’s health concerns on one side, and then put their own health condition on the other side. Once the cards were collected, Fala then made a PowerPoint that contained the issues on it to make other students aware of difficulties that could be plaguing someone who is sitting right beside them.

This sharing of stories and narratives is done with the purpose of “awakening and fostering authenticity,” as Fala puts it. “Students walk away feeling more attuned to their community, and they walk away feeling like they are better leaders because they are more attuned.

            “It’s not about who’s the most demonstrative speaker, but it is about who is the most reflective listener,” says Fala. “That person who listens will have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the people with whom they’re working, and with the people with whom they are sharing a community.”

"That person who listens will have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the people with whom they're working, and with the people with whom they are sharing a community."

Grace Fala, director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion

            “I think it’s opened our eyes to a lot of people’s stories,” says Alex Webb, a junior from Easthampton, Mass. “We can see our own lives as our personal bubble, and we don’t think of what other experiences others have been through. When you listen to people, you get a better understanding for it.”

            Originally, the class had only five students, but now has more than tripled in size with 18 students.  

            Each week, students are given a question ahead of time in order to give them a chance to prepare a response before the class meets each Wednesday. These questions include things like: “What makes you different? And “What difference do you make?” and “What makes you who you are?”

            When the class meets, the students go around the room and share their responses. The students leave class and begin a process of reflection. Fala has her students take on reflection from a four-tiered approach:

--Students should report on something that stood out.

--All students should explain their reaction to it.

--The class should relate it to things that were said in classroom, or to a reading or movie assignment.

--Offer reflections on the responses and jot down what they plan to take away from each assignment.

Fala allows students to takethe LEAD course as many times as they wish, because she believes with the new faces in the class each time, it will always be a different experience. She feels that there is always more that you can learn from listening to different people’s stories. One student, Marissa Woodman, a junior from Foster City, Calif., participated in the class during its inaugural semester, and is now working as Fala’s teaching assistant during the current semester.

             “It’s a little bit of an uncomfortable experience,” Woodman says. “You don’t know if your experiences are going to make you feel isolated or if you’re going to be putting a target on your back depending on what you say and what you think.”

            Woodman also felt that she learned some valuable lessons in addition to the diversity training the course offers. “I don’t like talking about myself,” she says.”This class definitely taught me to be more comfortable opening up about myself -- it’s okay to be vulnerable.”

Although the primary learning comes from discussions and reflecting on what is said during the discussions, Fala also has her students watch films. One of these films, titled “Babies,” is about looking at how infants are parented throughout different parts of the world. “It stretches your understanding of love,” says Fala. “It shows how much love and compassion goes into parenting children in all areas of the world.”

At the end of the semester, students are required to do a creative expression. This is done by taking whatever a student is passionate about, whether it is poetry, photography, music etc., and then demonstrating their reflections of the course through the given medium. The students then present this to the class, and explain what they have created.

Although one of the goals of the class is to teach diversity, it is not the center of discussion during class periods. Instead, the class works by sharing stories with one another. “You can go through half a semester or three quarters of a semester without ever talking about diversity because you are living it. You do this through listening and learning,” says Fala.

On an even larger scale, Fala hopes that this class will work with the overarching goal of Juniata College to become a more inclusive community. “It’s called inclusive excellence,” says Fala. In the end, this goal is that every student, “regardless of their abilities, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and so on, finds a place to develop no matter who you are. The college is trying to make sure that all of the students feel fully welcome.”

Written by Joey DiGangi ’18

Contact Gabe Welsch at welschg@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.