By Candace Walworth, PhD, Peace Studies Professor
Approximately 90 new undergraduate students gathered in the Performing Arts Center (PAC) for an orientation “first class” on Friday afternoon, August 24. Dennis Kerr (Traditional Eastern Arts, 2016), Naropa’s AmeriCorps VISTA Veteran Success coordinator, greeted students with a musical improvisation on the trumpet as they took their seats.
Twelve blank sheets of paper lined the walls, a visual cue that Dr. Lynn DiLorenzo (Interdisciplinary Studies Associate Professor) and I, co-designers and facilitators of the class, hoped would communicate the message: Welcome to Naropa University where you will co-create your education!
Knowing that students find their way to Naropa in search of their own wisdom, heart, and voice, we designed the class based on the principles of Open Space Technology, a process in which facilitators create the space and time for participants to self-organize around topics that matter to them. Chairs were arranged in a series of concentric circles with four microphones placed in the cardinal directions.
Before guiding students through an exploration of their own significant learning moments, we shared our own stories—one from everyday life (the story of a lost flip-flop in the St. Vrain River) and one from academia (discovering feminist organizing through a women’s studies course at the University of Illinois in 1975).
To launch the Open Space process, we posed the guiding question: “Who are you as a learning community?”
“What do you care about? What do you want to learn from one another?”
Edward, a new Interdisciplinary Studies major, stepped up to the microphone and announced:”Healthy masculinity.”
“Heartbreak,” said another.
“Guilt,” “Sex,” “Sobriety and Natural Highs” also made the list.
It didn’t take long for all twelve (formerly) blank pieces of paper to come alive. Students who offered topics became facilitators, not knowing who (or how many) might show up. Most groups moved their conversations from PAC to the Green, accompanied by a faculty, staff, or returning student to document the process.
Less than forty-five minutes later, I was standing on the steps of the Allen Ginsberg Library when the sky turned from blue to grey, delivering the promised afternoon scattered showers. Expecting students to seek shelter, I was astounded that most groups continued their conversations, allowing the rain to nourish fleshly planted seeds.
Dabbing a mixture of tears, rain, and mascara from her eyes, a new student turned to me: “If this is what Naropa classes are going to be like, I’m going to wear less make-up.” We shared a wink and a hug, one of a myriad of tiny moments of connection in the larger process.
Dennis Kerr’s trumpet signaled the end of Open Space, letting us know it was time to reconvene in PAC for the closing circle.
Transpersonal Counseling graduate student Cheri Krause participated in the class as an Orientation leader and documenter. “I’m delighted to have been part of this amazing work/play space that got created today,” she said in the closing circle.
Cheri characterized the new class as “passionately expressive, deeply feeling individuals who are willing to ask hard questions.”
A cheer rose up in my heart and, from the sound of their response, in the hearts of incoming students as well.
“Most social change initiates or is shaped by a single traceable conversation,” Margaret Wheatley (2002) observed in her book Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.
Is it any surprise, then, that a multitude of friendships—and new student groups—were formed through this simple, yet profound, process of turning to one another?