11,500 ASU freshmen set to receive training in art of civil communications.
Sun Devil Civility plans to expand from incoming freshmen to other groups.
January 27, 2017

University initiative aims to promote communication skills, finding common ground through peer-to-peer training

In a time of heated rhetoric and fraying decorum, Arizona State University is planning to train incoming freshmen in the art of civility.

Nearly 11,500 new students will take a three-hour workshop called “The Art of Inclusive Communication” next fall, with the hope that they begin their college careers with the skills to find common ground with one another.  

The Office of Student and Cultural Engagement has been piloting a workshop with students, faculty and staff for more than a year and has hired 32 student facilitators, who will train 1,400 students this spring, according to Mark Sanders, senior coordinator of the office, which is part of Educational Outreach and Student Services at ASU.

“The underlying goal is to celebrate and recognize differences and to get people to learn from each other and advance the idea of inclusion and access — all of those great things the ASU charterThe ASU charter: ASU is a comprehensive public university that is measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuring fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health our the communities it serves. is about,” he said.

Emily Kwon said she learned how to talk through emotionally charged conversations at the workshop.

“The art of communication is an undervalued art. People need to realize that the way you say it really does matter,” she said. “Especially with recent events, opinions are heated and people won’t listen to each other because of the high-impact emotions.

“So we learned that people have different opinions, and that’s OK. And it’s important to discuss it in a productive manner and how to move on,” said Kwon, a senior majoring in biological sciences.

The peer-to-peer training will be key in working with the incoming freshmen next fall.

“It’s not about ‘let’s come in and preach at you about civility,’ ” Sanders said. “They’ll talk about identity and unconscious bias, and students say, ‘I never thought about it that way before.’ And freshmen have the attitude of, ‘OK, teach me some cool things.’ ” 

Besides practical skills for managing conflict, workshop participants learn about their own values and communication style.

The idea for encouraging civility started about two years ago, when leaders at ASU noticed some issues on campus and decided to partner with the National Center for Conflict ResolutionNCRC was founded in 1983 by the University of San Diego Law Center and the San Diego County Bar Association., a San Diego-based nonprofit organization.

“We had free speech visitors coming in and yelling at people, and people were not responding in the best way,” Sanders said of the confrontations that occurred between proselytizers and students.

The National Center for Conflict Resolution partners with other universities, but ASU’s university-wide initiative is unique. First-time freshmen at the Tempe, Polytechnic, Downtown Phoenix and West campuses will get the training within the first eight weeks of the fall semester. Eventually, other groups will get the opportunity, including transfer, graduate, international and online students.

The Student and Cultural Engagement office offers other workshops that promote communication and respect, including “Navigating the Rainbow of Inclusion,” “Interfaith Identities: Learning and Conversation,” “Different Faces, Same Spaces: Diversifying Cross-Cultural Dialogue and Interactions” and “Global Allies Training.”

All of that will be gathered under one umbrella called Sun Devil Civility.

“The hope is that this serves as the basic platform, and it launches from there,” he said. “How do you engage with your peers? How do you move forward in the cycle of life at ASU? And what can you do to create civility and a sense of community in the citizenry of ASU, Arizona, the U.S. and the globe?”

Fasha Johari, the president of ASU’s Coalition of International Students, is a Muslim student from Malaysia. She said the tips she learned in the workshop have helped her with some uncomfortable situations.

“It’s helped me to not engage with people who want to provoke,” she said. “They want that kind of reaction so they can say, ‘This person is aggressive.’ ”

A senior majoring in biological sciences, Johari said ASU has improved in the four years she has been here.

“I really think ASU is moving forward to include all of us. They really help a lot in terms of making this a second home for us.”

Sanders said the goal of Sun Devil Civility is that students can complete several of the workshops and acquire a certificate in civility training.

“I have this vivid image that 20 years from now, these students will be our senators and representatives who say, ‘In college I learned how to have a conversation with you.’ And, ‘We disagree, but we can make this about the global good.’ ”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

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