Search for Common Ground’s First Year Connect

American society is plagued by far-reaching polarization stemming from deep grievances and divides. College campuses have become a battleground, with racial hate incidents, controversy over guest speakers, and heated debates over creating safe spaces or protecting free speech.

First Year Connect aims to combat polarization on college campuses and in American society by equipping a generation of young Americans to engage constructively across their differences. We intend for First Year Connect to be the primary orientation program used by colleges to develop healthy campus communities, reaching tens of thousands of students per year on a fee-for-service basis.

  • First Year Connect is an orientation program for first-year students that will facilitate intra-campus dialogue and build trust, respect, and constructive coexistence across differences.
  • Students will meet in small groups (8-12 members) through an online video-conferencing platform before arriving on campus. Each group will be composed of students spanning political, racial, and other lines of diversity within the student body, and will be guided by a highly-trained facilitator.
  • A wide range of topics will be discussed, such as politics, religion, and personal values, and students will be given the chance to feel heard, welcomed, and embraced before they arrive on campus.
  • First Year Connect builds on over 20 years of experience facilitating online, cross-cultural dialogue experiences for young people from varied backgrounds in universities, language centers, and youth organizations across the globe.

  • First Year Connect will empower students to set the cultural and social norms on campus during times of tension. The program will enable students to drive constructive dialogues on campus themselves rather than relying on top-down direction from administrators.
  • Even before starting classes, the student body will develop norms of constructive discourse, helping all students to feel heard and respected.
  • First Year Connect aims to protect both safe spaces and free speech. Students will be able to express themselves openly while creating a productive, genuine, and respectful dialogue with others.
  • A greater sense of community across campus will be developed and maintained as a result of the mutual trust and respect cultivated by First Year Connect. Students will become trained facilitators themselves, which will help hold the community together during times of heightened tension.

  • First Year Connect has partnered with a state university and a small liberal arts college for its 2-year pilot program. These pilot institutions have agreed to cover a portion of the program costs for the first two years, and then will cover the full costs starting in year 3 if the program meets agreed-upon metrics. If successful, First Year Connect can achieve scale by tapping into new markets through a fee-for-service model rather than relying on philanthropy.
  • In order to scale, a public relations campaign will target higher education leaders to popularize First Year Connect as the preferred program for orienting diverse student bodies into healthy campus communities.

Search for Common Ground has partnered with Soliya and Tiger 21 to implement First Year Connect.

For more information, go here.

Published by David J. Smith

I am a career coach, consultant, and head of a not for profit - the Forage Center - that offers humanitarian education training. I also teach at George Mason University and Drexel University. A one time lawyer, I spent many years teaching in a community college where I was a Fulbright U.S. Scholar teaching in Estonia. I'm the author of Peace Jobs: A Student's Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (IAP 2016). I've been married to my best friend for over 31 years and we have two well adjusted adult children who teach me something new everyday. I live in Rockville, Maryland.

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