I don't know about everyone else, but racial topics have always seemed to be taboo where I grew up. I come from a primarily white school district and town just outside of Pittsburgh. In fact, most of the neighboring districts and boroughs were also primarily white families. So basically, I didn't grow up among a plethora of diversity, and I feel this is the case for a lot of students from the Quaker state.
So when I transferred up to the University Park campus, I found out that for one of my communication courses, I would be required to attend something known as the Race Relations Project (RRP).
For those who have never experienced this, the project is a closed-door, 90-minute session lead by two facilitators. With a group of fewer than 10 students, participants are given free reign to talk about any racial topic that they may not have been able to discuss openly before -- whether it be the use of the word/classification "black," affirmative action, illegal immigration, personal experiences with prejudice, etc. The facilitators don't start the topics; the participants do (facilitators are there to guide us in a direction of a constructive conversation.)
Let's go back to my initial impression of the project. When I discovered that attending one of these sessions was required, I'll be the first to admit that I moaned and groaned about having to deal with something to had no apparent connection to the public relations course I was taking.
I felt this was the general consensus of the classroom -- I saw multiple eye rolls and heard several sighs -- so I was relieved to feel I was not the only one going into this with a bad attitude.
I finally signed up for a session, and I can honestly say I left that cramped room feeling as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders -- a weight I never knew I was carrying around.
It helped me realize that I was not the only person who felt a similar way about a wide array of racial topics. I didn't even know the group of people in those sessions, but I felt as if I could communicate without reservation and without being judged.
And even though I can't talk specifically about what was said in the session, I've kept it with me, and it has helped me change my outlook on the modern day approaches to race relations.
I've had to participate in the RRP each semester since my first term on campus Fall 2008 -- a total of three times -- and each group talked about a different pool of subjects than the previous session. I felt better about myself every time I left.
It's extremely effective, and it works even better if you go into the project with an open mind -- I know it helped me. It's hard to explain specifically how because I feel it's my general outlook that profited most. I just see people in a more fraternal light.
Danna Jayne Seballos, facilitator manager for RRP, and Michelle Thiry, program coordinator for RRP, said they think these sessions are effective because the facilitators are required to go through semester-long training. They also touched on the fact that there is nothing else on campus like RRP where students can "speak freely."
And even though this program isn't widely spread and is not available at other Penn State campuses, both Seballos and Thiry laughed in affirmative unison when asked if they would like to see RRP happen at the Commonwealth Campuses.
So next time you see a class that requires you to partake in the Race Relations Project, don't fret. I can definitively say the experience will always be memorable for me.
Chris Bickel is a senior majoring in public relations and is The Daily Collegian's Friday columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.