Group Facilitation – “How Hard CanThis Be?”

When afforded the opportunity, I eagerly volunteered to co-advise the student leadership council of the Division of Undergraduate Studies (DUS).  After all, I love working with students and this opportunity would enhance my leadership skills as well. My co-adviser and I were eager to jointly take on this task. As we read the students’ applications, we realized that we would need to change the focus of the group somewhat.  Past councils focused on enhancing the leadership skills possessed by council members through study of leadership models and styles. However, our incoming leadership council group was brimming with enthusiasm to make a difference for DUS students. It was apparent they wanted to put their leadership skills to work.  A leadership retreat at Shaver’s Creek in late August helped to create a common bond.  All of the students were passionate about their journeys of exploration toward a major and had an abundance of eagerness to share their stories.

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It was at this point that I learned that advising student groups was far different than working one-on-one with students in an advising or mentoring capacity. In a one-on-one conversation, a few well-selected questions would provide the challenge necessary to prod a student’s thinking.  In a group, the process is much more involved and,  in my opinion,  akin to walking a tightrope! Even among a leadership group, leaders emerge with voices that carry weight. Group facilitation, in general,  balances encouraging students to use reason in their planning efforts without squashing their enthusiasm.  Our discussions and idea generation often took up entire meetings with no consensus reached.  One trick I learned mid-way through the year was the power of online doodle polls.  I decided to collect all ideas for projects during planning sessions and encouraged the students to go home and reflect on the pros and cons of each.  They were asked to think about which projects met the mission of the DUS Leadership Council and would be in the best interest of DUS students.  Then I posted an online Doodle poll and students would vote for their top two choices.  Those that garnered the most support were the projects that moved to fruition. Students began to learn to consider the intent behind their efforts and evaluate a project before moving forward. The seeds of reflection were planted.

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One project that had unanimous support was creating an opportunity to share conversation with fellow DUS international students.  The leadership council students hosted an open house during International Education week and all DUS international students were invited to come with friends.  Information from recent qualitative research with Chinese international students completed by DUS advisers was shared with the leadership council members.  The results suggested that international students are not as involved in co-curricular activities as they would like to be, thus the leadership council made the goal of the open house to share their co-curricular experiences and how these have informed their educational journey.  Through posters and conversation the students shared this message with the international students who attended.

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The international students who did attend were treated to fruit, cake, and conversation.  They heard about a variety of clubs and organizations they could join to enhance both their academic and social experience at Penn State. Friendships were also forged as leadership council members offered to join international students in attending the Winter Welcome Involvement Fair and other upcoming campus events.  At the end everyone left with warm, fuzzy, feelings.

The next day the leadership council students received an email.  Unbeknownst to them, a learning outcome was connected to this activity.  My co-adviser and I hoped that through this program our students would come to see the value in reaching out and developing friendships with diverse groups of people.  The leadership council students were asked in the email to reflect on what, if anything, they learned from the program.   I share some responses.

“To be honest, I’ve never branched out to any Chinese international students simply because I felt they were not interested in getting to know me. Harriet really opened my eyes and I appreciated the similarities both her and I shared.”

“I would say my feelings have changed about international students. Before the open house, I wrongly assumed international students chose to be separate and didn’t bother learning our culture. But especially talking with Jones, he is just not aware of all the many opportunities. He seemed very interested in things once we got talking to him. I will approach other international students with the thought that they want to learn more and do want to experience American activities. “

“Please don’t thank us for our efforts. It was so humbling and such an honor to have the opportunity to talk with the international students that attended yesterday. The courage that it took for them to show up to complete strangers and open us to us was truly remarkable. I felt like it gave me a greater appreciation for the strength they have of leaving their home country and taking on Penn State by themselves. I really hope the small amount of time that I spent having conversations with a few of the students brightened their day, because I know it brightened mine!!”

“I really enjoyed talking to the students and getting a different perspective of their journey at Penn State. It definitely made me respect international students much more because of all the difficulties they face being so far away from home in a brand new environment. I thought this Open House was both beneficial for the Leadership Council and the International Students and I think it is something that should be continued!”

Using the students’ reflections as an assessment of their learning, I found this program to be extremely worthwhile for them to have undertaken.  It helped them meet the mission of service to other DUS students while also providing them with an opportunity for self-authorship.

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