Every year for the past six years, a large number of students have joined a special campus club called The Undiscussed to talk about challenging topics that can get buried under the debris of our daily duties and burdens. Each spring, when The Undiscussed becomes active, participants focus on one subject to tackle.
The Undiscussed was founded in 2008, growing out of an independent study by Alyssa Chen ’08 that looked at “sustained dialogue circles at universities.” The inaugural discussion topic was race, and the group’s founders came up with the descriptive tag line, “Breaking Barriers and Enabling Change Through Dialogue.” In the following years, The Undiscussed looked at identity, choice, image and space. This year, members took on the topic of (un)happiness to examine both happiness and its opposite.
Veronica Verdin ’15, one of the club’s leaders, explained recently that a steering committee of students selected the happy theme because this academic year The Princeton Review named Bowdoin among the best United States colleges for quality of life and one of the top 10 happiest colleges. Since students were already talking about these rankings, it made sense to examine them more closely, Verdin said.
Das said a steering committee of students picks a theme that will cover topics students want to talk about. After choosing a theme, the committee reaches out to students, recruits and trains discussion facilitators, and books rooms.
This semester 83 students participated in The Undiscussed. In small groups of 10 or so, they participated in five structured discussions led by trained facilitators (other students) and analyzed what happiness means, what it looks like and what causes it, as well as ways to increase happiness at Bowdoin.
While the group encourages an open dialogue for its own sake, The Undiscussed is also designed to lead conversation and debate away from abstraction and toward action. Typically, early sessions start out addressing broad questions. Later sessions move the conversation to a more narrow focus, looking at ways Bowdoin students can improve the quality of life on campus. One of the outcomes of The Undiscussed in the past has been the addition of spring activities fair to complement the fall activities fair, providing students with a “second chance to think about clubs and activities they may want to join after they have settled into their schedule a bit,” Das said.
“Discussions [this year] varied from personal happiness to what happiness means at all, to what is happiness at Bowdoin and how Bowdoin helps support happiness,” Phoebe Joaquin ’15 said. She, Verdin and other leaders of The Undiscussed — Maria Montes ’13, Kate Kearns ’14 and Monica Das ’14 — in early May addressed a group of Bowdoin administrators who had gathered to hear The Undiscussed’s conclusions. (Two more leaders, Tyler Silver ’13 and Nasra Hassan ’13, were not present at this meeting.)
While The Undiscussed members touched on many factors that affect the happiness of Bowdoin students — such as the social scene and parties, body image, socioeconomic class differences and career pressures — one theme clearly became dominant, according to Das. “The biggest topic was about forming relationships [and making connections],” she observed, referring to the whole spectrum of relationships between students. “That was the biggest influence on happiness.”
Students repeatedly expressed a desire to reach beyond their social group and meet other students, often people from different backgrounds. “In summary, people wanted to create more of a sense of community,” Kearns said, and make it easier and more comfortable for students to make bridges between people.
The action plan The Undiscussed members came up with include ways to build community, encourage more discussion and make friends. Below are a few of their suggestions:
Have a regular open dinner table at Thorne for students, alone or with a friend, to eat dinner with a new group of people, based on the Bowdoin tradition of Dinner with Six Strangers.
Establish Undiscussed-like groups every week, open to all students, on a variety of topics.
Hold a panel to discuss students’ socioeconomic status and how it affects happiness at Bowdoin or inclusion in the community.
Write a letter to a mailbox buddy.
Hold a speed friending event, like speed dating.
Create a website where students can post local events they want to go to (e.g., concerts, political rallies, trips to the beach). If there’s enough interest, fund a college van for the group.
Create a new social house of juniors and seniors from different social, academic, athletic or interest groups.