I’m not a Catholic, white, conservative, American. Nor am I into football. The University of Notre Dame was a perfect match.
My college experience taught me a lot: I learned all about Catholicism. I learned that Midwesterners know what winter really means. I learned how to scream in despair after fumbles and interceptions. I learned that people found it astonishing that I knew English and thought that my religion was “Indian.”
I also learned how to have conversations with people with whom I completely disagree – politically and socially. I thrived outside of my comfort zone.
In an Ethics class during my senior year, the topic for the day was abortion. We discussed our takeaways after reading about the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate. Halfway through, it dawned on me that the other 39 students in the class assumed everyone in the room was pro-life.
“Well, if you take the assumptions from the reading, every woman has the right to choose regarding her own body,” I confidently ventured after raising my hand. “It makes perfect sense to be pro-choice.”
Ten hands shot up simultaneously. The incredulity began: “you can’t kill an unborn human being who cannot make its own decision.” “You can’t choose whose life to value more.” “The only reason to have sex is to have a baby.”
It was my turn to be silent.
The professor did his best to temper the mood, and nodded towards me sympathetically before changing topics.
I was shocked and confused. The night before, I was chatting with a close friend who is ardently pro-life, doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage, and who shares my love of peanut-butter-chocolate treats. Over the next two hours, we disagreed about all the core issues surrounding the right to life. We tried to flesh out why we each thought the way we do. We made plans to get dinner next week.
We’d had a real conversation and mutually learned something about the other person’s beliefs. It brought us closer together. We were not arguing over the “truth” or the “correct” moral stance, but instead were explaining how our life experiences brought us to different worldviews. No judgement. We genuinely wanted to understand a different perspective. We never attacked one another’s character, nor doubted our credibility to have our respective opinions.
“You were my only friend who showed me what people outside of my bubble might think,” she later told me.
Our conversation in stark contrast to my Ethics class. There, I was the only outsider in the group, and I was instantly shut down. In all my time at Notre Dame, that was the only time I was antagonized for having a different way of thinking.
My bubble was burst every day as I navigated the opposite side of the social and political spectrums. My closest friends owned guns. Some of them hated taxes. Many even voted for Trump. They booed Obama when he gave the 2009 Commencement address. They never tried to “convert me” or tell me I was wrong to believe something else, but I became accustomed to being intellectually challenged with each such encounter.
Through each new disagreement, I understood more of the world, and made connections with people I otherwise would have ignored. There was no unbridgeable divide.
Three years after my Ethics class, I was sitting with my new classmates at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. We were stress-eating chips and watching the 2016 presidential election with increasingly furrowed brows. My friend recalled how the worst part was the shock of the unimaginable becoming a reality. I asked him why it came as such a shock. “I just thought most people hated Trump,” he said. “But I guess I never really bothered to find the people who didn’t.”
I live in a bubble again, and I’ve stopped thinking about the “other point of view.” We’re at a school where there is no polarization, because we never make room for alternative points of view. Most students I encounter are liberal and left-leaning. We don’t make space for the people who are out of their comfort zone. “Do you ever disagree about anything?” my younger brother asked me after visiting.
I don’t know the answer to his question, because I’ve reverted to the equilibrium of not having tough cross-political conversations. It’s convenient and tempting to avoid them, but look at where it’s gotten us. Not having these conversations isolates us from those who believe differently, and this isolation fosters antagonism and mistrust. It’s time to burst the Harvard bubble, so that if someone is out of their comfort zone here, they can thrive too, just like I did at Notre Dame.
There has been momentum to counter our complacence: students, faculty, and administrators recognize the need for broader civil discourse. But we need more interaction, and deeper engagement for systemic change. My graduate college experience has reminded me to have conversations with people with whom I completely disagree, and to have real conversations with everyone.