There’s a lot to love about working for a university. You get to play a role in the education of the next generation of leaders, you get access to student dining services, and you get to take classes offered to faculty and staff. While each is a fantastic benefit in its own way, the latter is by far my favorite, and it was what I most looked forward to when I was offered a job at a university in New York. The position started in January, and not wanting to waste any time, I signed up for two classes within a few weeks of being there.
The first class was American Sign Language—something I knew would be immensely helpful since there are close to 1,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing students on campus. The next class was shared during staff orientation, and while it was a less obvious choice than ASL, it caught my attention. A member of the Division of Diversity & Inclusion included a brief description of a program called Breaking Bread while sharing their office’s work.
Breaking Bread is a course where you complete an application detailing your background (religion, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.) and are paired with a person who contrasts with you in some way. Then, you are given a series of prompts to help you gain a deeper understanding of your partner throughout the semester. In the past, I have worked for organizations where people’s unique aspects tend to be minimized in favor of rigid conformity, so knowing I was working for an institution that celebrates those differences exhilarated me.
I showed up to my first meeting feeling like I was on a blind date, but any awkwardness that my partner and I felt quickly disappeared thanks to the outline we had been given to facilitate conversation. This allowed us to describe our backgrounds while setting the stage for what we could expect for the remainder of the semester. We met six more times, and with each meeting (the final ones using Zoom), we gained a deeper understanding of who the other person is and how our experiences contribute to our unique identities.
The class was an amazing experience, but it was also quite challenging since it pushed me to confront my own implicit biases. This led to conversations that were heavy at times, but they were worth it because they provided countless “aha” moments as I gained insight into both my partner and myself. I was fortunate to have been paired with someone who welcomed tough questions, and early on, we made an informal pact that said we could bring up any question, even if we didn’t know the perfect way to frame it.
That ground rule was game-changing because it provided a space to ask tough questions without fear of being deemed offensive, and it ultimately led to deepened perspectives for both my partner and myself. Opening a conversation like that is difficult and requires copious amounts of grace and understanding, but if you can establish that your questions come from a desire to learn rather than attack, remarkable things can happen.
The semester gave me a new friend while providing a window into the struggles my partner faced throughout their life because of their identity—lessons will stick with me for life. I understand that most people don’t have access to a class like this, but I would recommend a similar experience to anyone. It can be as simple as initiating a conversation with people in your life who have different backgrounds or beliefs. It’s not always a straightforward process and will require both parties to lower their defenses, but I promise it is a worthwhile endeavor.