Student Profile: Jamie Bagliebter, Jen Leyton: Crossing Cultures with Dialogue


by Marilyn Sherman

SESP seniors Jen Leyton and Jamie Bagliebter started an organization to bridge the gap between disparate groups on campus
SESP seniors Jen Leyton and Jamie Bagliebter started an organization to bridge the gap between disparate groups on campus.

(PHOTO BY BEN SHAPIRO)
Sustained dialogue combats stereotypes and separatism. With this notion, two SESP honors students founded an innovative organization at Northwestern last fall. Seniors Jen Leyton and Jamie Bagliebter started Bridging the Gap to span the divide between disparate groups on campus.

Through the yearlong program of biweekly discussions, students meet with people unlike themselves and have candid conversation about race and ethnicity. "Given the self-segregation on campus, there is a need for an intentional dialogue about who we are and some of our similarities and differences," says Leyton, a senior in human development and psychological services. "Our purpose was to foster a safe place for this to occur where people are willing to listen and share in confidence."

Bagliebter, a senior majoring in social policy, sees the organization as a way to capitalize on the diversity that is one of the perks of university life. "We're not taking advantage of the diverse situation we're in," she says.

Sustained dialogue combats stereotypes and separatism. With this notion, two SESP honors students founded an innovative organization at Northwestern last fall. Seniors Jen Leyton and Jamie Bagliebter started Bridging the Gap to span the divide between disparate groups on campus.

Through the yearlong program of biweekly discussions, students meet with people unlike themselves and have candid conversation about race and ethnicity. "Given the self-segregation on campus, there is a need for an intentional dialogue about who we are and some of our similarities and differences," says Leyton, a senior in human development and psychological services. "Our purpose was to foster a safe place for this to occur where people are willing to listen and share in confidence."

Bagliebter, a senior majoring in social policy, sees the organization as a way to capitalize on the diversity that is one of the perks of university life. "We're not taking advantage of the diverse situation we're in," she says.

Bridging the Gap, which started last fall with 45 participants, grew out of a need to foster relationships among Greek umbrella organizations. "For years the number one problem was how to unite the councils," says Bagliebter, referring to Panhellenic, Interfraternity, African American and multicultural groups.

Leyton and Bagliebter, both sorority presidents, were excited to find a model in Sustained Dialogue Campus Network (SD), which is active on about 12 campuses nationwide. Last summer they organized training for 10 peer moderators to lead SD's five-step process: deciding to engage, telling experiences, drawing commonalities ("That's where the lightbulb goes off," says Bagliebter), coming up with solutions and taking action.

True to their majors, the co-heads approach the organization differently, Bagliebter as the politician and Leyton as the psychologist. However, both cherish the same goals of nurturing participants and keeping the momentum going. Both also want to expand beyond the Greek system and include more students. They envision diverse possibilities such as bridging the divide between Arabs and Israelis, gays and straights, north and south campus.

Personal motives play a role in their efforts. Leyton, who is bi-ethnic, with a Panamanian father and a mother of European background, says, "I am navigating between my two cultural backgrounds, learning from one and the other." Bagliebter, who describes herself as a "white Jewish girl from a white Jewish town," relishes learning about the different backgrounds she has discovered in college.

Response to Bridging the Gap has been enthusiastic, both from students and the University's administration. "People are hungry for it," concludes Leyton. As a result, the organization added new groups midyear and provided dorm dialogues for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Looking beyond campus to their personal plans for the future, both seniors credit SESP as a launching pad, saying they benefited from its real-world experiences and intellectual role models. Leyton, who is drawn to "the intersection of mental health and culture," is applying to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. Her SESP practicum in a partial hospitalization unit at Children's Memorial Hospital was a formative experience, she says, as were her studies with faculty members Nancy Remley, Carol Gaetjens and Jelani Mandara. "I have benefited a lot from the SESP way of teaching and learning," she notes.

Similarly, Bagliebter has found her social policy major especially beneficial. "Social policy illuminates so many different fields," she says. She has appreciated SESP's sense of community, as well as study abroad in Denmark and Field Studies in Washington, D.C. While she aims to become a public interest lawyer, for the next couple of years she wants to "ground" herself through a stint with Teach for America or the Peace Corps.

As Leyton and Bagliebter move on to bridge cultures in their careers beyond Northwestern, they anticipate that Bridging the Gap will continue to grow. Bagliebter says, "Hopefully we can leave a legacy of this organization."
By Marilyn Sherman with photos by Ben Shapiro