July 24, 2014 , BY Heather Johns

Teams of students, administrators and faculty from 15 colleges and universities met at Bucknell's Cowan Forrest Brown Conference Center for the inaugural PULSE Institute.

There's no cell service here. No wireless, either. No beeps or ringtones mute the cicadas' love song as it harmonizes with the rustle of wind through trees. The only other sound is the hum of human voices.

Teams of students, administrators and faculty from 15 colleges and universities are talking to each other — a lot, actually — face to face and about challenging subjects. The sound of their voices blending in with the symphony of nature tells the story of why they are here, eight miles from Bucknell University's campus, to learn how to change their college campuses for the better.

They are at Bucknell for the PULSE Institute, a five-day retreat hosted by the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue and supported by a grant from the Roger I. and Ruth B. MacFarlane Foundation.  

PULSE was inspired by Common Ground, a retreat started at Duke University 10 years ago and expanded to Bucknell University in 2008. Common Ground facilitates students' discussions about race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender and equality, and is often described as a transformational experience for students.

"We wanted to make it so that every student graduating from college could have some kind of Common Ground experience — gain the skills and commitment needed to create an inclusive environment," said Amy Lazarus, executive director of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue and one of the co-founders of Common Ground at Duke.

"The power of this work is the simple premise of bringing together a diverse group of students committed to change, or at least open to change within themselves and in their communities," added PULSE Director Christopher Scoville.

Sam Angles, a junior legal studies and business major from Hofstra University, said the PULSE experience was everything he'd hoped it would be. "We all have a really good vision, what we're striving toward is something everyone can benefit from and enjoy and appreciate," he said. "We share a beautiful goal, and I think we're building a way to make it realistic."

"We have developed some real expertise here in terms of training student facilitators and knowing what effective activities to include in the retreat," said Associate Provost Robert Midkiff. "I think we have an obligation to share that expertise and to help other colleges and universities implement a program inspired by Common Ground."

"Common Ground opened up incredible opportunities for exchanges across communities at Bucknell, and has created a space of inclusion for a large cohort of students," said Alexander Vining '14. He participated in Common Ground as an undergraduate at Bucknell, and built on that experience in his role as a PULSE facilitator. "I think PULSE really filled all of us with a sense of hope and excitement," he added, "even while we grappled with having challenging conversations."

Participants engage in experiential learning, hear speakers and take "PULSE pauses" to explore an idea or issue as a group. The importance of dialogue to create change is a big part of what the retreat is trying to instill, said Lazarus, based on research that shows an intense, immersive experience followed by sustained engagement is the best way to create attitudinal and behavioral change.

When participants leave Bucknell and return to their respective campuses, they will implement versions of PULSE. Some will include small groups continuing to meet to address through sustainable action projects the issues identified at PULSE.

"My hope is to come out of this program with a plan of action — a solid, tangible idea of how I can take this not only to my college community, but wider," said Angles. "And then help it spread to something bigger so everyone can join in."

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