Communicating Common Ground
By Margaret Finucane, assistant professor of
communication, John Carroll University
Communicating Common Ground, a joint project of the
National Communication Association, the Southern Poverty
Law Center, Campus Compact, and the American Association
for Higher Education, began as an effort to create more
engaged students and faculty in communications departments.
What has emerged from this collaboration is a dynamic
program that encourages institutions of higher learning
to embrace their communities and teach students the
benefits of diversity. We are happy to now welcome the
Association of American Colleges and Universities as
a new partner in this national project.
Through Communicating Common Ground, faculty members
and students partner with community agencies and P–12
schools to reduce prejudice and foster respect for diversity.
Because prejudice is detrimental to a strong democracy,
these partnerships seek to maximize the opportunities
for interaction among college students and school children
in local communities. In the five years since its inception,
the Communicating Common Ground project has grown to
include over seventy-five partners nationwide. Below
are examples of the work of some of those partners.
For more information about the project, please visit
John Carroll University
Students enrolled in Interpersonal Communication at
John Carroll University (JCU) tutor elementary school
children from an impoverished urban community. Because
JCU students are primarily white and the elementary
school children are primarily African American, both
groups of students have the opportunity to meet someone
“different.” Part of the tutoring project
involves short workshops on stereotypes, prejudice,
and the importance of valuing diversity.
The college students and the elementary school children
alike have benefited greatly from the program. The positive
effects for college students are exemplified by the
experience of Molly Matesich, a junior at JCU who writes,
“Of all the educational experiences I have had
at John Carroll thus far, this one [the tutoring project]
has definitely been the most rewarding. My experience
. . . was more educational than anything I could have
learned from a textbook or in a classroom. The service
project greatly enhanced what I learned from the interpersonal
For the elementary school children, the opportunity
to work individually with a college student has been
highly valued. The children vie for the chance to be
selected for the tutoring program. In addition, after
one year of the tutoring program, the pass rate on the
fourth-grade statewide proficiency tests jumped from
near zero to 50 to 75 percent. Anthony Jastromb, a fourth-grade
teacher at the elementary school, attributes a significant
portion of the increase to the presence of JCU students.
Students tutoring these children learn about the obstacles
to education faced by urban districts. Significant college
class time is devoted to discussing the relationships
JCU students form with these children. We attend to
language, nonverbal communication, perception, and other
key aspects of interpersonal communication. Students
complete guided journal entries for each week’s
tutoring session. Analysis of the journals reveals that
students gain a greater understanding of the relevance
of a college education to “living in the real
world” (Finucane and Akande 2005).
George Mason University
Students in New Century College at George Mason University
are participating in the Communicating Common Ground
project and report a significant impact on their learning.
Students enrolled in Social Movements and Community
Action as part of a campus learning community work with
community organizations to fulfill academic objectives
while satisfying the organizations’ needs to effect
social change in the community. Pre- and post-test surveys
reveal “an increased awareness by students that
service, citizenship, and civic responsibility are inextricably
connected” (Gring-Primble and Kenner-Muir 2005).
Ball State University
Students at Ball State University have the opportunity
to participate in a fifteen-credit-hour interdisciplinary
seminar studying hate speech. This seminar, Learning
from a Legacy of Hate, exposes students to the power
of hate speech and its impact on community members.
Students interact with members of the community, examine
attitudes of intolerance in the local community, and
study ways to combat hate speech (Messner 2005).
Western Michigan University
Journalism students at Western Michigan University
partner with a local high school’s journalism
program to produce a special newspaper section for the
local Kalamazoo paper that focuses on a diversity issue
in the community. The college students report that they
engage in significant research and learn reporting,
writing, and editing skills more fully through participation
in the project. Similarly, the high school students
report that they learn more from producing this special
edition than from any other edition. They also engage
the community and their views on the importance of diversity
often change (Christian 2005).
Xavier University of Louisiana
Honors public speaking students enrolled at Xavier
University of Louisiana partner with local middle schools
to develop the public speaking skills of seventh- and
eighth-grade students. Each year, public speaking assignments
are connected to a social studies theme at the middle
school, such as the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs.
Board of Education. Xavier students design a public
speaking curriculum that integrates research, writing,
and presentational skills. The middle school students
have an opportunity to visit the university’s
library to participate in a research workshop and an
interview skills workshop. For the Brown vs. Board of
Education assignment, students met and interviewed members
of the New Orleans community who remembered the Brown
decision and related events.
The project culminates in a celebration where the seventh-
and eighth-grade students present their speeches. The
middle school students report better understanding of
significant events in history, increased confidence
in their speaking ability, and satisfaction with the
mentoring relationships they experienced. Xavier students
report a stronger connection to their own histories
and demonstrate a desire to explore the topics in greater
depth for their own class presentations. Xavier students
also report strong interest in continuing the mentoring
program beyond the semester coursework (Louis 2005).
Christian, S. E. 2005. Student newspaper diversity
project. Internal report, Western Michigan University.
Finucane, M. O., and O. S. Akande. 2005. Achieving
an understanding of diversity through interpersonal
communication. Internal report, John Carroll University.
Gring-Primble, L., and J. Kenner-Muir. 2005. Social
movements and community activism: Connecting the classroom
to the community. Internal report, New Century College,
George Mason University.
Louis, R. 2005. Communicating Common Ground at Xavier
University of Louisiana. Internal report, Xavier University
Messner, B. 2005. Learning from a legacy of hate. Internal
report, Ball State University.