As colleges around the country grapple with issues of diversity and tolerance, first-year students at Chatham have been addressing the subject head-on through a new First-Year Communication Seminar—Dialogues: Identity and Values. The course aims to challenge students’ beliefs and facilitate discourse around issues such as gender, faith, race, and how they contribute to identity. An experience shared by all first-year students, it helps establish a sense of class unity that will persevere regardless of their eventual fields of study even as it fosters respect for differences.
According to Katherine Cruger PhD, Assistant Professor of Communications who directs the Seminar, “It was a challenge determining how to help students practice communication skills like writing, engaging in respectful discussion, and giving oral presentations while also grappling with difficult course content about identity and difference. Bringing Patel to campus seemed like putting that last piece of the puzzle into place.”
Cruger is talking about Eboo Patel —founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a national nonprofit working to make interfaith cooperation a social norm—whose book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation is required reading for the Seminar.
Patel came to Chatham on December 2 to give a lecture entitled Sacred Ground: Interfaith Leadership in the 21st Century. The talk was sponsored by the Karen Lake Buttrey ‘67 Chair in Religion and Society, established to honor the legacy of the late Karen Lake Buttrey, who received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Chatham College in 1967 and served on the Board of Trustees. Patel also met with students and administrators during his visit and instructed an interfaith training session.
“The students were very impressed by Patel, which made the significance of that part of the course more personal and profound,” says Elisabeth Roark, PhD, Associate Professor of Art, one of the professors who teaches the seminar. “His humor and ability to pull in personal anecdotes made his talk very relatable. The students also embraced the feeling that, though the lecture was open to everyone, his purpose there was to connect with them and their work in the course.”
After Patel’s talk, first-year students were asked for feedback about what would improve the Dialogues Seminar. The consensus was that Patel’s book was an essential element to the course, and that having him come to campus really brought the material to life.
Patel was named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009 and served on President Obama’s inaugural Faith Council. For over fifteen years, Eboo has worked with governments, social sector organizations, and college and university campuses to help realize a future where religion is a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.