On a campus of 30,000 people, clashing viewpoints are inevitable.
Approaching those disagreements with respect, empathy and understanding makes all the difference.
Students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln had that idea in mind when they created Converge Nebraska, a program that brings together Huskers of different political ideologies for conversations about their beliefs.
Converge Nebraska was started in August 2018 by the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska. Jared Long, internal vice president of ASUN, said the program reflects a growing need for civil discourse in today's political climate.
“There is clearly an issue with our political discourse today in the United States,” Long said. “I think everyone — young, old, rural, urban, no matter their background — recognizes that there’s a problem, but no one knows what to do about it.
“One of the first steps to solving any problem is to start a conversation. Hopefully, having a program like Converge Nebraska present on our campus inspires students to think a little bit more about the issue at play and how they can be a part of the solution.”
Registration for Converge Nebraska is open for one month at the beginning of each semester. Interested students fill out a survey assessing their beliefs and are then matched with another Husker with opposite views.
From there, the two students schedule their own time and place to meet. They can also use an optional 10-point discussion guide provided by ASUN to help them move the conversation along.
Long, a junior political science and journalism major from Beloit, Kansas, said he's seen an increased number of participants and positive reviews in the three semesters Converge Nebraska has been on campus.
“Everyone who has given us feedback has said that it was incredibly fruitful for them, and they loved the opportunity to intentionally sit down with somebody from the other side and have those conversations. People found it to be very constructive,” Long said.
Peter Owens, a sophomore economics major from Omaha, participated in a Converge Nebraska session last month. Owens said he came away from the experience with a better idea of why his conversation partner believed what they believed, and also discovered that the two shared more in common than he thought.
“I thought it was interesting to have a political discussion that wasn’t an argument. We focused more on understanding each other's views, rather than trying to convince the other person of our own views. We talked a lot about why we believe the things we do and the way we grew up, our families, our faith and how that played into our political views. I thought that was really insightful,” he said.
One of the benefits of Converge Nebraska, Owens added, is that it offers a rare opportunity to sit down and broaden your perspective.
“Especially with social media now, it's really easy to get caught up in your own echo chamber of people who agree with you all the time,” he said. “Converge Nebraska was really good at learning more about the other side as people, rather than as an opponent.”
Long is optimistic that the program will continue contributing towards a productive, peaceful atmosphere at Nebraska.
“Young people are always very strong in what they believe, but ultimately, people are willing to reach across the aisle and respect the other person's viewpoint as long as their viewpoint is also being respected. It's a two-way street,” he said.
Registration for this semester’s Converge Nebraska sessions is now closed. Students are encouraged to follow the group’s Instagram and Twitter pages, as well the ASUN website, for updates on when registration will open during the spring semester.
Learn more about the university's Peace and Civility project here.