In a basement meeting room that doubles as a chapel, 10 college students sit in chairs arranged in a lopsided circle. To look at them, they seem no different from any other group of college friends—snacking on bags of chips, dividing their time between reading papers and joking with each other.
Butthe students come from vastly different worlds. Five are from Georgetown University, a school of 7,000 students with 59 percent identifying as Democrat, according to a 2016 survey. The other five come from Patrick Henry College, a conservative Christian college with a student body of less than 450 in Purcellville.
For the past school year, these 10 students have been discovering just how much they share. And on a Saturday morning in western Loudoun County, they’re putting together a play based on each other’s life experiences.
“In Your Shoes” is the brainchild of Georgetown professors Daniel Brumberg, director of the M.A. program in Democracy and Governance Studies, and Derek Goldman, a theater professor and co-director of the school’s Laboratory of Global Performance and Politics.
The program is meant to be both a play and a project. At the end of this semester, students will perform a show based on their conversations for residents of Loudoun County and Washington, D.C. The greater purpose of “In Your Shoes,” though, is to help students develop empathy for people who many not believe like them.
“We are trying to see how to facilitate a dialogue in a world that is very polarized,” Goldman said. Both Goldman and Brumberg noticed as political conversations on the national stage grew more vitriolic, their students needed an opportunity to discuss deeper issues in a non-threatening arena.
The professors reached out to Dr. Cory Grewell, a PHC professor of literature, because it was geographically close and has a different political climate. Grewell immediately grasped the program’s potential.
“When you have to sit down and talk to someone, you have to acknowledge that they are a human being,” Grewell said. “Affirming another person’s humanity, listening with empathy and interest, considering carefully how our words will sound in another person’s mind—these used to be things that were subconscious in human interaction, and we’ve lost them. What we’re doing provides a model for restoring them to human conversation.”
Georgetown student Kate Oelkers thought she might need to act buttoned-up for her first visit to PHC last fall. An exuberant theatre major, Oelkers said she didn’t necessarily have preconceived notions about PHC students but nonetheless felt nervous meeting them.
“I thought it would get much more contentious than it has,” she said. “[But] in this group I really do feel that I can be uninhibited.”
Both semesters, she’s been paired with a PHC student she meets regularly over video chat. The professors provide a few basic questions around a theme like home or faith, but the students are encouraged to let their talks flow naturally. Afterwards, each student selects a small part of their conversation and transcribes their partner’s dialogue word-for-word, including “ums” and other filler words. During meetings, Oelkers and her partner perform each other’s monologues for the group. The students often find it touching to hear their words in another person’s mouth.
This semester, Oelker’s partner is PHC senior Daniel Cochrane, a political theory major. A philosophical and forceful speaker with a background in high school debate, Cochrane appreciates how “In Your Shoes” has encouraged him to really listen.
“In debate, you listen to respond … [With “In Your Shoes”], you really are forced to think carefully about what others say,” Cochrane said. “We have common fears, common desires.”
Goldman isn’t sure exactly what form the final play will take, partly because much of the result will be up to the students and their stories.
Goldman and Grewell will host public performances at both colleges – at Georgetown on April 25 and at PHC on April 27, exact time to be determined.
Goldman hopes that, with this year’s success, he can continue the program into another school year—if not spread the idea to other schools.
“The bonds that these young people are building is quite wonderful to watch,” he said.
Back at rehearsal, PHC student Kara Brown and Georgetown student Julie Menz alternate reading each other’s monologues. At face value, the stories seem starkly different. Brown tells how Menz grew disenchanted with Christianity while sitting in church. Menz reads about how Brown, still a devoted Christian, grew up in a Messianic Jewish congregation even though her family isn’t Jewish.
Goldman tells the girls to read the monologues again. This time, he snaps his fingers every few seconds, and the girls switch off reading so quickly that their monologues almost sound like one story. Woven together, the two experiences seem strikingly similar—both are grateful for what faith taught them, but both feel at least somewhat uncomfortable with the churches in which they grew up.
Silence reigns after the reading as students and professors try to hold onto the unexpected beauty of the moment. Then, they applaud.