Bridgebuilding Fellows Demonstrate Model Bridging Divides in Difficult Conversations

Students complete Bridging the Gap training to better engage across deep divides in polarized contexts

April 27, 2024
Students and faculty having conversations at round tables in a ballroom

Bridgebuilding Fellows demonstrated listening exercises from the Bridging the Gap curriculum that equips students and educators with the skills to create positive connections in a polarized world. (Mesha Mittanasala/Baylor Lariat)

Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-709-5959
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WACO, Texas (April 27, 2024) – Continuing Baylor University’s year-long focus on civil discourse, 31 Baylor students – newly commissioned as the inaugural cohort of “Bridgebuilding Fellows” – joined together April 23 at the Hurd Welcome Center for a university-wide demonstration of a model for bridging these divides by cultivating curiosity, deep listening and story sharing. 

Following the launch of the Baylor Conversation Series in January with a discussion on faith and politics, interested Baylor students immediately began working through the eight-week Bridging the Gap (BTG) program, a grant-funded curriculum through Interfaith America that equips students and educators with the skills and knowledge needed to create positive connections in a polarized world. 

Michael Whitenton, Ph.D., full-time lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (BIC), and Kevin Villegas, Ed.D., dean of Intercultural Engagement and Division of Student Life Initiatives, partnered to introduce and co-direct the Bridging the Gap initiative, which is part of Baylor’s Faithful Trajectory intercultural engagement model introduced last year.

“The scope of the Faithful Trajectory model affords us the opportunity to strategically address issues that are highly divisive in constructive ways, positively impacting campus climate and culture,” Villegas said. “Equipping our campus community to engage in healthy and virtuous civil discourse is an approach that is working.”

The Bridgebuilding Fellows program is aimed at creating and sustaining a culture shift toward bridging so that when tension arises, the campus community can lean toward each other and toward difference to understand it, be curious and ask empathetic questions to better understand each other, Whitenton said.

“We're really polarized as a nation, but it’s worth pointing out that we're not actually as different as we think we are. We often overestimate that by about a factor of two, and it's these conversations that allow us to see people how they really are and to kind of complicate the stereotypes that we create in our minds about people who disagree with us,” he said.

Modeling the conversation

Bridgebuilding Fellows modeled their bridging skills at tables throughout the Hurd Center ballroom, first demonstrating listening exercises from the BTG curriculum that focused on how to listen in total silence without making any facial expressions.

“The goal is to talk across difference and continue to listen and hear all that you can about their experience and why it is that they believe what they believe,” Whitenton said. “That often means you're going to hear things that are really hard to hear. The last thing you want to do is respond in a way that shuts them down.”

Bridgebuilding Fellows guided the conversation by opening with an accessible question like, “Tell me about your favorite meal,” and using “encouragers” such as, “Tell me more.”

“When we listen in a Bridgebuilder conversation, it's like we're the passenger in the car and the speaker is driving. We don't want to grab the wheel. We leave the wheel alone,” Whitenton said. “Let the speaker talk and let them tell their perspective entirely without trying to interject our own views. There will be a time for us to share our perspective, but when we're listening, we're letting them talk.”

The evening concluded with a reflective, structured dialogue around perspectives on free speech. Four students with four different approaches to these questions shared their perspective for two minutes with additional time for the students to ask each other questions of genuine curiosity.

“They agreed on some things, but they have some pretty strong disagreements on others and to see them thriving and feeling so comfortable there is amazing,” Whitenton said.

Jacob Saflar, a junior accounting major and Bridgebuilding Fellow, said his most used bridgebuilding skill was storytelling.

“Within Bridgebuilding, storytelling is especially effective as it communicates emotional components of your experience even more than it does the factual information,” Saflar said. “As part of the panel, I originally had difficulty coming up with what to speak on as far as free speech on college campuses, thinking it had to relate to getting socially pressured for having an opinion not held by the majority, but then I realized the flipside of this is what it feels like to be on the receiving end of not hearing voices that disagree, and that's an experience that I can resonate with.”

The Bridging the Gap program with the first Bridgebuilding Fellows is already making a difference among the student participants themselves. Faculty leaders administered a pre- and post-test before and after the eight-week training. Some of the preliminary highlights include: 

  • 43% reduction in “affective polarization,” which refers to feelings of relative distrust and dislike for people who, in this case, believe differently than you do.
  • 40% more likely to engage in bridging conversations.
  • 33% more optimistic about overcoming society's current divisions.
  • 21% more confident about their role in creating a more unified and understanding society.  

Plans for Fall 2024

In the fall, Bridgebuilding Fellows will help with trainings and hosting events. In addition, student leaders from a variety of student organizations will be trained in bridgebuilding skills and then will be able to pitch ideas for subgrants to put those skills into projects across the university.

In addition, Baylor also will host David Brooks on Tuesday, Sept. 10, for a day-long slate of events and activities. Brooks is a best-selling author, columnist and commentator, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Given his knowledge of present-day politics and foreign affairs, Brooks’ visit will continue to foster the spirit of respect and understanding that undergirds the Baylor Conversation Series on civil discourse.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.