Samford University and Miles College are joining forces to “bridge the gap.”
An initiative of Interfaith America, Bridging the Gap endeavors to teach students how to truly listen, understand, be heard, and seek common ground — without comprising deeply held values.
Interfaith America is a national nonprofit organization that believes religious diversity is a foundational American strength. Its mission is to inspire, equip and connect leaders and institutions to unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity.
“Bridging the Gap is about creating a culture where bridge builders are heroes—a culture where we are able to engage across deep lines of difference, build bridges, work toward the common good and find things that we can do to make our communities better,” said Rebecca Russo, senior director of higher education strategy at Interfaith America. “We are thrilled that Samford and Miles are partnering together and with us to bridge the gaps between their students and institutions and to build a stronger Birmingham.”
In August, representatives from Samford and Miles attended the Interfaith Leadership Summit in Chicago to be a part of a cohort that Interfaith America had sponsored for the Bridging the Gap initiative. At this meeting, the idea of partnership was fleshed out, and the two institutions agreed to put together a grant proposal. This ultimately led to Miles and Samford receiving Interfaith America’s first educational impact grant in the amount of $25,000.
“The original cohort of Bridging the Gap, which was done between Spring Arbor University and Oberlin College, inspired us to start thinking, ‘what are the collaborations that we need to have.’ The idea that a predominantly white institution and an HBCU; with many things in common, anchored here in Birmingham, might be the right avenue to approach a collaborative partnership,” said Bridget Rose, director of the Samford Academic Success Center.
“This grant, and Interfaith, is monumental and definitely meets a need,” said Charles Stallworth, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Miles College. “It demonstrates to both institutions how we can collectively help our students by showing them … that they are themselves, but knowing at the same time there can be differences. When you have those differences, you can articulate them in a way that is both respectful and impactful, and at the same time it warrants the challenge that you can still be yourself.”
The goal of the educational impact grant is to change a campus culture. In partnership with Miles, Samford will be exposed to dialogue that impacts the Birmingham community and strive to turn divisive conversation into unifying conversation.
“Miles College and Samford, both being sister institutions in the Birmingham area, will be able to form a cohesive and effective camaraderie with cohorts of students that will be able to share these skills in the future and take Interfaith, Samford University and Miles College to new and higher levels,” Stallworth said.
Growth is at the heart of the Bridging the Gap initiative and is central to Miles’ and Samford’s partnership. Both institutions are committed to seeing growth in their students, in the community and in their relationships with one another.
“The significance of this Interfaith grant is that it allows Samford and Miles College to grow closer together and to give our faculty, staff and, most importantly, our students a new outlet and a new way of communicating with each other around really hard topics and really hard messages that we think can help us build a better community together,” said Jarralynne Agee, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Miles College.
In 2022, Samford University placed special emphasis on educating students about character-building around the topic of civil discourse. In April, Samford hosted Love Thy Neighbor week to bring the campus community together in celebration of a shared commitment to showing love and kindness to all, despite any perceived differences.
“Bridging the Gap at Samford is important work that we are doing, teaching our students the skills needed to have conversations in a civil and constructive manner on topics we may not all agree on,” said Dr. Denise Gregory, associate provost for student success and diversity and inclusion. “We are not trying to change an opinion of someone but getting each person to understand that we can be civil and have conversations about whatever it may be, in a respectful way.”
“As an institution of higher learning, we teach these skills to our students so that when they are out in the real world, they have those bridge-building skills to go out and work well with others, to be successful and represent Samford the best way they can,” said Gregory.
The partnership between Samford and Miles kicked off on Wednesday, Dec. 7, with a special campus experience. Trainers from Interfaith America presented skills-based learning opportunities to an audience of Samford and Miles faculty and staff. The presentations focused on listening and storytelling. That morning, members of each institution’s executive leadership teams gathered to engage in collaborative dialogue about the future of the initiative.
In the spring semester, Samford and Miles will both offer courses on bridging the gap. Instructors will educate students with a curriculum unique to Interfaith America’s Bridging the Gap initiative, which helps students engage in constructive and healthy dialogue surrounding difficult subjects. These courses will allow students, both at Samford and at Miles, to connect with one another and build relationships.
Additional enrichment and leadership opportunities will be available as Samford University plans to continue to bridge the gap on campus and in the greater community.
This is not the first time Samford University and Miles College have come together in partnership. Samford and Miles developed the MISA Collaborative as a cultural partnership to use the arts and humanities as a tool to bring the two institutions together collectively and relationally to serve others. Through Bridging the Gap, these institutions are coming together once again with a shared purpose.