Vassar Bolsters Engaged Pluralism Effort

The College has committed additional resources to its work facilitating dialogue across difference, including newly hired administrators.

Shortly after the war in Gaza broke out last October, members of the Lathrop House team began to witness the effects of the conflict on some of the residents there. “We saw them struggling with the news of the war, the protests on campus, and the violence they saw on social media,” said Lathrop House Team Events Officer Yaksha Gummadapu ’26.

Members of Lathrop’s House Team knew exactly where to turn for help. They reached out to Amanda Munroe, who had recently been hired as Director of Restorative Practices for Engaged Pluralism. After speaking to members of the House Team, Munroe, who holds a master’s of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary and a master’s in conflict resolution from Georgetown University, assembled more than a dozen Lathrop residents in what she called a Restorative Circle. Participants shared their concerns in a safe environment, talking about the events that had triggered their fear—“and it really worked,” Gummadapu said. “There were tears and hugs at the end of the session.”

It was crises like this that President Elizabeth Bradley had in mind when she announced in the fall of 2022 that the College would be committing its resources to continue the work of the Engaged Pluralism Initiative, a five-year effort funded in part by the Mellon Foundation to promote a sense of belonging, inclusion, and equity on campus. 

Three people (two seated in chairs with one standing between them) in an ornately decorated room.
Engaged Pluralism administrators (left to right): Alexia Ferracuti, Director of Inclusive Pedagogy; Julian Aguilar ’23, Manager of Employee Experience; and Amanda Munroe, Director of Restorative Practices.
Photo: Grace Adams Ward ’24

The plan to make Engaged Pluralism a permanent part of Vassar included the appointment of Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn as EP director and the redesign of three administrative roles to form a collaborative team. Those hired for the new full-time positions, in addition to Munroe, were Alexia Ferracuti as Director of Inclusive Pedagogy for Engaged Pluralism and Julián Aguilar ’23 as Manager of Employee Experience Initiatives for Engaged Pluralism.

Engaged Pluralism Program Administrator Selena Hughes said the creation of the three new positions had enabled her and others at the College to foster collaboration on various initiatives. “Vassar has sometimes had a tendency to be siloed,” Hughes said, “but we meet biweekly to share our insights about the needs of the students and others on campus. My job is wrangling this information and then working either directly with [Munroe, Ferracuti, and Aguilar] or with our working groups, all with the goal of promoting belonging.”

Munroe says she spends much of her time helping students, faculty, and staff acquire the skills and practices that enable them to cope with conflicts, which supports overall campus climate. “I want to see the culture of Engaged Pluralism flourish here,” she said. “I facilitate difficult conversations, and, with my EP colleagues, offer workshops that support anyone on campus practicing healthy engagement within differences.”

She added that the work many on campus had already been doing since the Engaged Pluralism Initiative was launched had made her job easier. “There was already a culture of restoration and care here,” Munroe said. “I’m using my expertise to strengthen and enhance that culture.”

Ferracuti said she had been striving to help members of the faculty find ways to spotlight issues of equity and inclusion in their classes. “My major goal has been to foster an inclusive learning environment,” she said, “and it’s been exciting to create programming that supports this kind of pedagogy.”

Snehankita Das ’25, a student who recently co-founded ACCESS, an organization dedicated to assisting students with accommodation needs, said Ferracuti had already developed some tips and procedures to raise awareness of such issues for members of the faculty. “I shared information ACCESS had gathered from students last year with Alexia, and she will use the information to create programs that address these issues,” Das said. “She definitely shares our concerns.”

Ferracuti recently worked with Associate Professor and Chair of Chemistry Alison Keimowitz to develop a workshop for science faculty on how to provide accommodations for students who are taking courses that involve laboratory work. “I’m always looking for ways to improve my teaching methods and finding ways to employ inclusive pedagogy, but this is especially important in labs where students coming to Vassar have vastly different levels of experience,” Keimowitz said. “The workshop that Alexia ran was really helpful, finding ways to teach not just the material for the lab but also the lab procedures themselves.”

Thomas Parker, Associate Professor and Chair of French and Francophone Studies, said he was working with Ferracuti to create a workshop for faculty in his department. “We have some students co-teaching some of our conversation courses as well as visiting faculty from France who are not familiar with the resources Vassar has for instilling inclusive pedagogy,” Parker said. “Alexia is also presenting a workshop called ‘Teaching in Tough Times’ that provides tips for dealing with students in class during crises such as COVID or the Mideast conflict. She is a valuable resource.”

Aguilar is leading efforts to expand the Employee Onboarding and Employee Resource Groups programs, which will help employees make connections across the College community, and he works closely with his Engaged Pluralism colleagues to engage employees and address concerns about issues of diversity on campus. “It’s been exciting for me to engage in programs here [in Human Resources] and connect them with the values of Engaged Pluralism,” he said.

Kaeli Varden-Jones, Assistant Director for Talent and Engagement, said Aguilar had taken a lead role in incorporating the values of Engaged Pluralism in interactions with both new and longtime employees. “Julian and I have been partnering in various DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] projects for the past several months,” Varden-Jones said. “He has been instrumental in moving us forward with this initiative.”

Kahn said he was pleased with the work all members of the Engaged Pluralism staff had brought to the College. “What each of the new roles represent is the College’s commitment to Vassar’s distinct approach to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “These positions represent all divisions of the College, cutting across departments and hierarchies. The goal is that together they will enhance our abilities to listen to all voices on campus and provide support for projects that embody our values from wherever they emerge. With my new colleagues, Engaged Pluralism has already been able to launch new projects and engage partners on campus in ways that deepen our community’s ties.”

February 7, 2024
Engaged Pluralism