IFC Senior Spotlight! Emily Albrecht ’21 and Meredith Maloley ’21

Since the Institute for Freedom & Community (IFC) was established in 2014, the IFC Student Associates have played a big role in keeping events running smoothly, and providing feedback on how to improve future IFC projects and events.

This year, two of the Student Associates that have been with the IFC the longest will be graduating: Emily Albrecht ’21 and Meredith Maloley ’21. In an attempt to highlight their work with the IFC and thank them for all they’ve done, Emily and Meredith sat down for an interview with Student Associate Jessica Horst ’22, and Assistant Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Erik Grell ’05.

How did you first get involved with the Institute for Freedom & Community (IFC)?

Meredith: My sophomore year, I took a course with Professor Santurri, and we attended the Institute event featuring Christina Greer, Jason Hill, and Leah Riguer as a part of the class. I remember being fascinated by the conversation between these scholars on Race, Immigration, and the American Dream because they each offered a different perspective to wrestle with. Emily came with me to the Institute event because I didn’t want to go by myself.

At the end of our sophomore years, we both applied to become IFC Student Associates because we wanted to be involved in bringing student participation to the amazing events that the Institute sponsors.

Emily: I am so glad that Meredith convinced me to come with her to an IFC event our sophomore year! Originally, I just went because she wanted a friend to go with, but it ended up being a catalyst for a fantastic conversation between us about our political beliefs, ultimately growing our friendship and piquing our interest in engaging with diverse political viewpoints. As Meredith said, we decided to apply to become IFC Student Associates because we wanted to raise awareness about who the IFC is and the amazing work it does on our campus!

If you had to describe the IFC to someone who had never heard of it before, what would you say?

Emily: The Institute for Freedom and Community is a place for me to learn about and deeply engage with academics and public figures from around the country, many of whom have fascinating but drastically different views than my own.

The IFC represents what I believe the purpose of college to be: to expose me to new ideas and cause me to question my own beliefs and presuppositions so that I can come to a better understanding of what I do believe, and, most importantly, why I believe it.

Academia should be a place where we exit the “bubbles” we grew up in, instead learning to reject confirmation bias and deliberately seek out those with whom we disagree so that we can ultimately make informed decisions about what we believe and how we are choosing to live out those beliefs. 

Meredith: In addition to what Emily mentioned, I would definitely talk about the incredible line-up of speakers that IFC brings to campus every semester. Because these speakers are often nationally known, MPR consistently replays IFC events – and we [the student body] get to the opportunity to ask speakers questions after the interview or speech. I would also mention the ways in which IFC supports independent student initiatives that further free inquiry and open dialogues, including the publication Rebuttal, the St. Olaf Debate Team, and the podcast The Prophet.

What are your opinions on viewpoint diversity? Is viewpoint diversity important on a college campus? What impact does it have on your interactions with others? 

Meredith: Many types of diversity are incredibly important to the strength of our Democratic-Republic, including the sometimes overlooked diversity of viewpoint. Diversity of thought is particularly important on a college campus because you are leaving your “bubble” of home for perhaps the first time, and you now have an opportunity to test and challenge your beliefs and prejudices. It’s easy to strawman the other side when you are surrounded by people who agree with you. It is much more difficult to engage with someone you disagree with and provide evidence for your arguments. We want the best of ideas to battle each other in order to ultimately improve on what each side has to offer.

Only when diversity of thought is encouraged are we able to challenge, inform, and ultimately work together to build a better future.

Emily: I think Meredith really hit the nail on the head; diversity of thought is crucial to society ultimately finding the best solutions for a better future. I’d also add that viewpoint diversity strengthens the relationships and interactions we have with each other. There is a wonderful movement happening right now in academia pushing for the celebration of diversity, and I think rightly so!

Diversity is ultimately an asset to any society; each person comes to the table with unique experiences, perspectives, tools, and strengths, and it is through harnessing the strengths of this diversity that we will be able to shape a better future for all.

Embracing viewpoint diversity has an extremely positive impact on my interactions with others because I learn to value the unique perspectives that everyone brings to the table, and I leave the conversation more informed, compassionate, and equipped to better my own corner of the world.

Part of the Institute’s mission statement says, “By exploring diverse ideas about politics, markets, and society, The Institute aims to challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue among those with differing values and contending points of view.” How has the 2020 election, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, affected your thoughts on the Institute’s mission? 

Emily: “Foster constructive dialogue among those with differing values and contending points of view.” Wow. If anyone actually watched the dumpster fire that was the 2020 Presidential debates or scrolled through social media in the weeks leading up to and in the aftermath of the election, there is no question that our society has largely lost the ability to engage with anyone of a different view than one’s own.

Places like the IFC are tragically absent from most of society and almost every college campus.

We expect Congress to work together and pass legislation, but we aren’t training the next generation of Americans how to actually work together.

Meredith: I completely agree. The 2020 election and Covid-19 have exacerbated the already existing crisis among the American public that we don’t know how to speak well with people that we disagree with. Instead of people cutting each other off over a Facebook post or shouting a political slogan, I would love to see people inviting someone they disagree with to a friendly dialogue.

The Institute provides a starting point to engage with interesting and complex thinkers and begin these dialogues with peers. 

Emily: The IFC also seeks to highlight how complicated our political scene is by questioning easy answers and encouraging students to dive deeper into the issues of today, investigating the implications of, philosophies behind, and reasonings for diverse viewpoints. This semester’s Andrew Yang event particularly brought this element of the IFC’s mission to light for me, as Yang described and defended his proposed Universal Basic Income policy, taking it beyond a seemingly “easy solution” and instead actually investigating and responding to the fascinating research and logic behind his viewpoint. 

As our world continues to become increasingly divided over political and social issues, what can you do to remain respectful, and open to constructive dialogue? What recommendations do you have for students on St Olaf’s campus? 

Meredith: Strive to keep an open mind and assume the best intentions of the person you are speaking with until proven otherwise. I always try to empathize with the person I am speaking with and ask, “What are the best reasons that someone might believe this? What unique, personal life experiences might have caused them to come to this conclusion?” Spend less time on social media and more time personally talking with your friends, classmates, teachers, and parents about the issues that you care about. Ask what issues are really important to them, and find out why! Maybe your political science friend knows all of the ins and outs of immigration law because he wants to fix the mess of a system we have now while your friend who is a chemistry major is particularly concerned about “Big Pharma” and how the American healthcare system needs a major overhaul.

Even if you may not agree with one or more of your friends, you can become a better, more informed citizen simply by listening with an open mind to people that have a different perspective from your own. 

Emily: Don’t make arguments with question marks! That may seem odd, but there is pretty much no faster way to shut down a constructive dialogue than to ask a question that feels like, or perhaps actually is, a leading question. No one likes feeling as if they are being led somewhere in a discussion. When you enter a dialogue with someone of an opposing viewpoint, you can guarantee that their defenses are up. Thus, your first step to creating a productive dialogue is to lower your own defenses and help the other person feel safe to do so as well. When sharing your views, it is best to simply make your argument or state your view and then ask the other person “What do you think?” or “I’m curious how you would respond to that. Come back at me here!” This fosters an environment where each person feels valued, respected, and comfortable to share their true views on their own terms. If your goal is to create a productive dialogue rather than a debate, then avoiding arguments with question marks is one of the best ways to lower everyone’s defenses and learn what the person you are talking to genuinely believes so that you can respond to it.

Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute for Freedom and Community encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues among students, faculty, and the general public. To that end, the Institute sponsors a range of programming opportunities, in addition to a fall and spring lecture series, to further cultivate civil discourse within the context of the liberal arts.

Please visit the Institute’s website to learn more about its mission, subscribe to the Institute’s YouTube channel, and sign up for its quarterly newsletter.