Collaborating Across Differences

Modus Vivendi retreat

From February 2018

By Anne Hartman Raether

Students tackle three personal questions—who are you, who do others think you are, and who do you pretend to be—at the start of the spring Modus Vivendi retreat, setting the tone for a program that encourages students to engage in pointed conversations and explore how their personal experiences impact their values and how they view others.

“We all pretend to be something,” said Carrie Grogan, assistant director of student leadership development in the Center for Leadership and Involvement. “Owning that and sharing that with someone else can break down barriers that could take years to break down otherwise—and it’s really cool to watch all that happen in 10 minutes.”

Modus Vivendi is a Latin phrase meaning way of life, and signifies when two parties work in harmony together, even if they don’t necessarily agree. The Center for Leadership and Involvement started the Modus Vivendi program in 2015 to help students to identify their values and work with their peers—who may or may not share those values—to enact positive change.

About 32 students join each Modus Vivendi program for large- and small-group discussions and team-building activities. Held three times per year, the overnight program takes place off campus and brings together undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of programs, who share a willingness to improve their understanding of themselves and viewpoints counter to their own.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that being vulnerable allows you to increase your leadership potential,” said second-year John Van Den Anker, who’s participated in two programs. “Through being vulnerable, we can show our perspective and open ourselves up to understanding others’ perspectives, which I found really powerful.”

The program also taught Van Den Anker to avoid making assumptions about others. He recalled an activity in which groups sat at tables and played card games. After a few minutes had passed, students switched groups, and, without speaking, began playing the game again. They quickly realized that each table was following a different set of rules.

“We learned that you can’t assume someone has the same perspective as you and is playing by the same set of rules,” he said. “Without good communication, you’re more likely to clash rather than collaborate to find common ground.”

Peter Leung, a fourth-year who’s joined the program twice, said it gave him a more detailed picture of his peers. In an activity that asked students to consider how different aspects of their identities have shaped who they are, Leung primarily identified as a student athlete. He was surprised to learn that for many of his peers, their gender significantly impacted their identity and their daily lives.

“That was eye-opening, to better understand that people come from various backgrounds, and think of things very differently,” he said.

While each Modus Vivendi program asks participants to consider individual and group values, the focus of each program is different. In Autumn Quarter, the Conclave focuses on community values, and participants develop a strategic plan to make a positive change within their communities. Winter Quarter’s Expedition asks students to consider their personal values and to reflect on how their leadership style demonstrates their values and strengths. The Retreat, held in Spring Quarter, focuses on group values, and teaches participants how to lead collaboratively and improve their understanding of and communication with others.

The goal of the program is to help students gain confidence to use their leadership skills to make a positive impact on their communities. It also strives to help students improve their ability to relate to others and work collaboratively.

Van Den Anker appreciated the opportunity to hone valuable life skills outside of the classroom.

“I think it’s really important to take a break in UChicago life,” Van Den Anker said. “Modus Vivendi is demanding, but in a different way. It’s important to switch your mindset, from completing tasks to thinking about why you’re completing tasks, and why the group is completing tasks the way that they are.”

Grogan believes that introducing this way of thinking and increasing students’ empathy for others can be the spark they need to incite change.

“Modus Vivendi makes you feel motivated and that you have the capacity to make changes, and connects you to other students with similar interests who can work with you,” she said.

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