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A Republican and a Democrat log into a Zoom call …

Nearly 200 UND students took on the ‘Unify Challenge’ to meet their politically opposite peers

Screenshot, Unify America.

Pick two strangers from a crowd and put them in a Zoom call together. All you know is that one is a Republican and one is a Democrat.

Then, prompt them to talk about the most heated topics in American politics: inflation, policing, abortion, gun control, immigration, etc.

If today’s media landscape were the only guide, heralding historic levels of division and hosting all forms of social media mudslinging, your social experiment would likely turn ugly in minutes. Amidst this tension, how could these two sides remain civil in opposition?

But, according to a survey of nearly 200 UND students who were in this exact position, the experience was rather pleasant. In fact, many said it left them more hopeful about their generation’s future.

Such were the results of UND’s participation in the 2023 Unify Challenge College Bowl, hosted by Unify America – an organization launched in 2020 “to reduce contempt, teach Americans to work together and build a diverse community to find ambitious solutions and solve our biggest problems,” according to its website.

And of the 60 or so colleges and universities across the country that took part, UND students accounted for nearly 12% of participants.

“UND had the highest number of students across all participating universities.” said Henry Pitts, partnerships manager for Unify America. “We were absolutely over the moon.”

Leaving the ‘bubble’

Jeff Holm, vice provost for strategic programming & special initiatives, placed the opportunity of the Unify Challenge College Bowl in front of UND professors on the advice of President Andy Armacost and Provost Eric Link.

Jeff Holm
Jeff Holm

For context, the Unify Challenge is a guided discussion between two strangers who, on paper, have differing political party allegiances and/or ideologies. For close to an hour, or as long as participants want to talk, they address a series of questions on a variety of social and political issues.

“Consider this your official invitation to step out of your ‘bubble,’” reads the Unify Challenge website.

Holm saw similarities to some recent programming he’s helped facilitate for faculty at UND, such as COIL and Riipen, in the sense that students could have real-world interactions that are valuable to course learning outcomes across academic disciplines.

“The ‘Unify’ name says a lot about the purpose,” Holm said. “When the purpose of a conversation isn’t to have a winner and loser, but rather to arrive at some agreement, is that possible?

“Reading students’ responses, we can see that they did that while still recognizing that they weren’t in total agreement. This is about getting to know people, being able to talk about difficult issues in a structured way and finding a way forward.”

And in the context of UND’s focus on leadership (i.e. UND LEADS, Leaders in Action), good leadership is bringing people together, getting past initial disagreements and focusing on the bigger issues at-hand, Holm said.

For the fall iteration of the College Bowl, with more time to notify faculty and for faculty to get students on board, Holm said he’s hoping UND can double the spring’s participation.

Screenshot, Unify America.

Fun, insightful and engaging

After the event wrapped up in early March, the vice provost’s team pieced together a report including survey responses and how UND students rated the Unify Challenge.

To note, the group was made up of 60% women and 40% men, and the split in voting history was nearly the same between the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively.

Rating the activity on a scale of 0-10, most feedback hovered in the 8-10 range. Anonymous comments paired with the ratings remarked that the Unify Challenge was fun, insightful and engaging.

“I was surprised that I could have a genuine conversation with someone from a completely different area than me,” said one commenter. “I was afraid that we would disagree on most things, but I was surprised that even when we disagreed, we found common ground.”

Though she saw it first as an extra credit opportunity for her political science course, the Unify Challenge was an “eye-opener” for Ashley Anderson, a junior social work student originally from Reedley, Calif.

Like the anonymous commenter, Anderson was tempted to think the worst – that she would meet an extremist, absolute and unmoving in his or her opposing views and opinions.

“I was curious about how it would go,” Anderson said. “As we went through, it became more relaxed, and we were able to have an engaging conversation.”

Even if on paper the two came from different sides of the aisle, they generally agreed on what the Unify Challenge put in front of them. Some of the questions asked for solutions, Anderson said, but most of the content focused on sharing viewpoints understanding each other’s lived experiences.

Anderson said she’d recommend the Unify Challenge to all students, regardless of what they’re doing at UND.

“It’s beneficial to have this kind of personal experience outside of my comfort zone,” Anderson said. “For me, getting into social work as a career, being exposed to different points of view and cultural backgrounds will help me react to future situations.”

Crucial civic muscles

Renee Cardarelle, visiting professor of political science, thought of the Unify Challenge as a natural extension of what she tries to achieve in the classroom: one-on-one discussions, breakout sessions and promoting critical thinking.

She offered extra credit to both undergraduate and graduate students she’s teaching this semester, for taking on the challenge.

“What we need more of in our communities is people understanding how governing is about exploring multiple perspectives and coming to a solution in a way that meets the needs of all those involved,” Cardarelle said. “You can’t always meet everybody’s needs perfectly, but you can get to better places if you listen to people and resist imposing one set of needs on the rest of the population.”

And Cardarelle speaks from experience, as she has spent years working in nonprofits and community engagement and mobilization, moving people to make changes they want to see in their communities. With that work comes tough conversations and consensus-building.

She praised the Unify Challenge for presenting structure and guidance in a situation where, otherwise, people would be scared to openly share their true ideas and feelings. While meeting a complete stranger over Zoom for an hour presents a certain level of safety, the act itself is working some crucial civic muscles at an important time, she said.

“If you’re in a space where you’re constantly getting reinforced with the same ideas, you lose your ability to imagine bigger, and you lose your ability to understand how something might work differently,” Cardarelle said. “It’s vitally important that we help students move outside of that, if we’re preparing them for a global workforce.”

Amanda Haage, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences who also encouraged her students to participate in the Unify Challenge, said she creates similar “cultural event” assignments that get students to do something outside of the comfortable rote and routine.

Whether it’s true or not, Haage said, she’s heard the phrase “more divided than ever before” enough times to realize that it’s something to which people are paying attention.

“The value for students doing this is in gaining the ability to communicate and work toward a goal with someone,” Haage said. “One of the No. 1 things employers are looking for is new graduates to be able to work in a team, and in education we arguably spend too much time on individual achievement. Almost any career post-graduation is much more of a team sport.”