Civic Matters

A Catalyst for Community Dialogue

Issue 2, April 2008

Reflections on Partnership, Mutual Respect and Community

Amanda Root


I arrived at Bryn Mawr College, as a McBride Scholar, with a weak academic background. I had dropped out of high school and founded a nonprofit organization, which I ran for five years. I came to Bryn Mawr to strengthen my academic voice and deepen what I had learned through founding an organization. Though I entered college with a strong civic mind, I was unsure how I would develop it through my education. The Bryn Mawr College Teaching and Learning Initiative’s Staff/Student Education Program (SSEP) has given me the opportunity to engage in theory and practice in such a profound way that I have been able to further my own understanding of what it means to work in partnership and within a community. Working collaboratively with Professor Alice Lesnick and getting to know a number of campus actors as a student coordinator within these programs opened up the space for me to do this. Previous to my Bryn Mawr experience, I would not have sought to name conceptions such as an “ethic of mutual respect” (whose explanation follows); I would have simply practiced it in my community work without trying to name it. Through the following reflection I mean to illustrate a change I see in myself, which has emerged out of engagement with this community and in dialogue with a variety of literatures. I wish to convey this personal change as catalyst towards engaging the entirety of the Bryn Mawr College community in a dialogue about what it might mean to include all campus actors in the educational mission of the College.

A broad spectrum of people are involved in and associated with the SSEP. Staff, students, faculty and administration make up the initiative’s advisory board, and staff, students and faculty are involved in teaching and learning partnerships. The program’s leadership is made up of faculty and students working collaboratively to complete administrative tasks, to foster connections among campus actors, to conduct research and to ensure that people on campus receive information about the programs. The structures of these programs are infused with an ethic of mutual respect—everyone is valued for who they are and what they bring to the table. Though these programs mean to connect all actors to the College’s educational mission, implementing and making public this intention challenges traditional liberal arts education. Liberal arts education is geared toward students. Who teaches and who learns is typically confined to teacher and student. Deep social connections are not wholly encouraged among people in diverse roles on campus, nor is it easy to shift perceptions about who gets to engage in the educational mission of the College. The challenge of changing perceptions, I imagine, is not unique to the college campus—every institution establishes roles with the goal of accomplishing necessary institutional tasks. At the same time, when people are defined according to their institutional roles, something about their humanity is lost. The SSEP provides the space for people to get to know each other, and getting to know someone means seeing and feeling the humanity among us.

Two experiences stand out in my mind and illuminate the potential for fundamentally changing how people interact on this campus. In November 2007 I helped organize a panel of SSEP participants for the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center (KHHC) Conference on Community Engagement and Learning. Organizing the panel was a piece of cake. I loved listening to everyone express his or her experiences in the program. For me, seeing staff, students and faculty coming together like this reflects a shared purpose among campus actors. While participants vary in their experiences of and in the programs, it seems that we share the goal of creating connections among faculty, staff and students and of linking everyone on campus to the College’s educational mission. When participants in the programs are in an explicit position to share their experiences, I see a community born that is different from what I have highlighted above. I see a community compelled to action for a common purpose, in which everyone is seen and respected for what she or he brings to the table. Where does this respect come from, and how are people able to get to this place of shared goals or ideals? I believe that the answer lies within the partnership model.

Through partnerships individuals are able to strengthen social connections (among other things), and that leads to a desire to be more active within the institution. Working with Professor Alice Lesnick is the second personal experience that stands out for me in my understanding of how people interact on this campus. Through program coordination and academic advising, Alice and I have shared in and cultivated a teaching/learning/leadership space between us where each of us brings unique experiences and expertise for the purpose of program growth, personal and academic growth and connecting all members of the community to the College’s educational mission. I feel like my own experience evidences a sharing of authority and mutual respect—each of us values each other for what we bring, and we are able to assist and complement each other. Having completed three independent studies, all associated with the SSEP and each involving Alice’s consultation, I have been able to reach into myself and cultivate an academic voice that embraces theory and practice and makes me feel like I can bring my whole self to this work. While Alice and I have very different roles on campus (faculty and student), we work together and utilize what each of brings to the program and the leadership relationship.

Emerging on this campus is an opportunity to reconsider how we interact and view all members of the campus community. I hope that people on campus will first be seen as multidimensional humans rather than outsiders, strangers, experts and novices—as bodies filling institutionally constructed roles. By creating and engaging in spaces where multiple campus actors share a common purpose and may act together on equal terms, such as the KHHC panel and within teaching and learning partnerships, I believe the SSEP can foster an ethic of mutual respect and promote shared participation in the educational mission of the College.

Amanda Root ’08 is working toward an A.B. in political science. Since the spring of 2006, Amanda has worked alongside Alice Lesnick as a student coordinator for the Staff/Student Education Program component of the Teaching and Learning Initiative. In this role she has assisted with program development, research, participant recruitment and instruction and has developed three independent studies associated with the program.