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Students start club focused on fostering open dialogue

| Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Have you ever wondered when an apple stops being an apple? Or what love really is? Or if art can ever be wrong?

Four Notre Dame students — Emily Okawara, Roisin Goebelbecker, Sean McMahon and Matt Williams — recently launched askND, a campaign aiming to create an open space to where students can talk about questions like these, and many more, away from the pressures and regulations of a classroom to make their university experiences more meaningful.

“We need something bipartisan, completely inclusive and just fun like this to kind of build a foundation across campus and get people in a room, get people talking with each other and understand that we all have something in common because we’re all wondering about these questions,” Williams said. “We’re not just creating a club for curious people. We’re starting a movement to encourage everyone on campus to be more curious.”

Okawara, Goebelbecker, McMahon and Williams said they took inspiration from two existing student-founded groups – Hot Chocolate and Chat, founded by Okawara, and Olympia Academy, founded by Williams and McMahon. They noticed the positive conversation and human connection that takes place when an open dialogue was encouraged and wanted to bring that to the rest of campus, Okawara said.

“We’ve seen and experienced first-hand the explosive conversations that happen behind closed doors,” McMahon said. “We are trying to make that a part of Notre Dame culture. We want people to ask really complex questions about God when they’re just walking down the quad with their friends and not feel weird about it.”

Another inspiration for the movement came in part from experiences that students had on Appalachia service trips.

“We went on these trips without any distractions and with people that we would never meet at the University otherwise — at Bethlehem Farm — and we kind of realized that this was something we really wanted through our university experience,” Okawara said. “We’re so used to meeting people through classes and clubs and dorms and parties … we wanted to create a space where you were able to jump straight into these conversations, not have any of the titles or distractions you have in those other spaces.”

Every morning, a question of the day will be posted on the Instagram page, ask.nd, as well as Twitter, @askmend and Facebook, askND. The questions could range from “What are your tattoos and what are your scars?” to “What keeps you up at night and what excites you?” Though the questions may seem simple at first glance, they are really “iceberg” questions that can lead to many different answers, Williams said.

“If you think you know the answer, ask it anyways and see what happens,” McMahon said.

The group is distributing distinctive purple question mark pins as a way to identify with the movement and serve as a conversation starter.

“[It’s] a campaign, a movement and a community,” Williams said. “In the organization sense, it’s a campaign. We are very much trying to promote a culture of open dialogue and honest dialogue with each other, but it’s a movement because we want to change the culture and become a permanent part of Notre Dame’s fabric and it’s a community because it’s not exclusive at all. It’s for anyone and everyone at Notre Dame.”

Williams, Okawara and McMahon said everyone is encouraged to participate in the movement, no matter who they are.

“The campaign was started by two extroverts, two introverts, in four different majors and four different dorms,” Williams said. “So it’s not limited to one college or one type of person. There’s no right or wrong way to participate in askND, it’s as simple as just asking.”

In addition to the questions of the day, askND will host a meeting in Geddes Coffeehouse from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday as a space for open dialogue about anything and everything, McMahon said.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t at least benefit from having some of these conversations,” Williams said. “For the three of us, and for [Goebelbecker] as well, we really wanted these when we came here and didn’t really know where to get them from so we made structures that did that. And a big part of founding this and hopefully leaving this as a legacy here is that it will be easier for people in the future to come here and want to start having conversations about anything and everything…now they’ll know exactly where to turn and they’ll have a network of people who are interested in doing the same thing.”

“The need for these conversations is never going to go away,” Mcmahon said. “There’s always going to be issues that will need to be discussed and there’s always going to be people that you disagree with. So I guess, don’t you think that’s a skill you should be building in college? If not now, when? If we can offer that space to people and give them a common ground for them to come interact and not to have us impose our values on them but utilize the common value of conversation and from there figuring out what you value.”

Through askND, Goebelbecker, Williams, Okawara and McMahon said they hope to help make students Notre Dame experiences more meaningful.

“In talking to a lot of students as well as faculty members everyone seems to pretty much be in agreement that the more you talk about Notre Dame, the more you understand why you’re going here,” Williams said. “The more of these conversations we’re having whether it’s something about love or our faith or eventually if we start getting into things that are more socially oriented, the more we talk about them and the more people we talk about them with the better we’ll understand ourselves and the better we’ll understand each other.”

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