UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Project makes dream of ‘Promoting diverse perspectives’ come true

When the Unify Challenge College Bowl pairs students of differing views, the result is — gasp! — not conflict but conversation 

Screenshot, Unify America.

Last week, at about the same time as protests and counter-protests were roiling some campuses nationwide, UND Vice Provost Jeff Holm found himself getting a little teary-eyed – but for a very different reason.

Holm was touched by how UND students who took part in the recent Unify Challenge College Bowl reported themselves to be more hopeful about the future of our democracy, more likely to consider new perspectives and more likely to vote in upcoming elections than they had been before.

“It is just a remarkable thing,” Holm said. “And it goes to show that when you’re face to face with somebody and actually engaging with and listening to them, you’re much less likely to demonize them and much more likely to be able to find common ground.”

Such was the case at UND, where 117 students took part in the fall term’s Unify Challenge College Bowl, and solid majorities or supermajorities of them reported exactly the sentiments Holm described.

The Unify Challenge College Bowl is a project of Unify America, a nonprofit “on a mission to replace political fighting with problem-solving,” as the organization’s website states.

Here’s how it works: The project pairs each participating college student with another of a different political leaning or background. They talk in a guided Zoom conversation about their views and the issues facing the United States.

And that’s it.

“Sound like trouble — or at least really awkward conversations?” the project’s website asks. “That’s what the students thought, too. … (But) the majority of university students were surprised by how much they found agreement and how much they enjoyed a conversation with a stranger from a different ‘bubble.’ ”

This fall, some 105 colleges took part in the Unify Challenge College Bowl, up from only 10 institutions in 2021. UND’s first experience with the Challenge Bowl was in January, as reported at the time in UND Today.

The fall term’s installment was likewise impressive.

Tami Carmichael

“Almost every student of mine who’s done this has been nervous at first – really scared about talking to someone they don’t know, in an online space, about topics such as gun control, abortion and Black Lives Matter,” said Tami Carmichael, professor of theatre and interdisciplinary studies at UND.

“But to a person, they said this was a phenomenal experience. Plus, more often than not, they say they find that they actually share the same views as the other person, which surprises them. They were certain they were going to be put into a room with someone who’s the complete opposite.”

Another fan of the project is UND President Andy Armacost, who notes that it fits exactly with the UND LEADS Strategic Plan.

“I am so pleased that UND students have once again participated in the Unify Challenge College Bowl,” Armacost said.

“Promoting diverse perspectives and inclusive worldviews is a key component of our UND LEADS Strategic Plan, in particular, the Equity core value. This component is exemplified by the Unify Challenge College Bowl, which engages students of different political and ideological backgrounds in a way that brings them together, instead of driving them apart.

“I look forward to more UND students participating in this event and having the opportunity to take part in critical conversations, to reflect, and to grow.”

Sixteen faculty members – nine from UND’s College of Arts & Sciences, two each from the University’s Business, Aerospace and Education schools, and one from the School of Medicine & Health Sciences – invited students from a total of 23 classes to take part in this fall’s College Bowl.

The students were surveyed after their experiences. Among the results:

* 61% were more hopeful about the future of our democracy, as Holm noted.

* 85% believed Americans share many of the same goals for the country;

* 62% said that the Challenge helped them consider new perspectives that they hadn’t considered before;

* 52% said they were more likely to vote in upcoming elections after taking the Unify Challenge;

* And 90% of UND students rated the experience as at least a 7 out of 10, with 55% giving it a 10, the highest score.

“It was a great experience,” said one UND student, in a comment left on the survey form. “We had a very productive discussion about every single topic, despite being on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. I would 100 percent recommend this challenge to other individuals in my class.”

Jeff Holm
Jeff Holm

Holm, vice provost for strategic programming and special initiatives, notes that as Special Initiatives go, the Unify Challenge College Bowl is hard to beat. “I mean, this is one of the best things I’ve seen,” he said.

“The responses afterward, and the survey data – I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just amazing to me that in a one-hour conversation, students can gain so much perspective; and we’re very much looking forward to offering the Unify Challenge again in the spring.”

>> QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS about the UND LEADS Strategic Plan? Your thoughts are welcome! Please contact Angie Carpenter, UND’s director of Special Student Populations, and/or Ryan Zerr, associate vice president for Strategy & Implementation, the co-chairs of the UND LEADS Implementation Committee.

You also may offer your thoughts by visiting the UND LEADS Strategic Plan home page and clicking on the “Provide your feedback” link that you’ll find there.

Thank you for your support of the UND LEADS Strategic Plan!