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How College Students Are Using Dialogue to Connect Across Differences: An Interview With BridgeUSA

Jessica Carpenter, Cambriae Lee|January 31, 2023

We sat down with Chief Marketing Officer at BridgeUSA Jessica Carpenter to talk about her organization's work to help students address campus conflict stemming from political divisions.

One of the five principles of constructive dialogue is to share your story and invite others to do the same. Can you tell us the story of BridgeUSA?

BridgeUSA was created in response to growing political division on college campuses. In 2017, Berkely experienced its largest protest since the 1960s when right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak on campus. The protestors set fires on campus and damaged property. After that, a few students on campus put together a session for other students to come talk about what happened – that ended up being the beginning of BridgeUSA at Berkeley. The hosting students, Manu Meel, Ross Irwin, and Jon Ampalloor, eventually came to lead BridgeUSA.

BridgeUSA has since grown to over 60 college and high school chapters across the country. Our goal is to facilitate constructive dialogue across lines of difference and teach students to work together to address problems our generation will inherit.

What are some examples of the kinds of campus conflict students have to navigate, and how do your programs better equip them to address them?

Students today are faced with growing political tension not only on a national scale but also on their campuses. This division is preventing students across the political spectrum from sharing their views on campus or in classrooms and has made it harder for them to engage politically with their peers. BridgeUSA creates spaces on campus for students to come and listen to each other, share their thoughts on local and national issues, and engage with perspectives they may otherwise not be exposed to. The goal is to build a better understanding of one another and learn skills to help better engage despite disagreement.

BridgeUSA is a youth-led organization. Often there’s been a knock against Gen Z for being overly tribal, quick to “cancel," and unwilling to engage across differences (especially on social media). How important is it that young voices are helping lead solution-based initiatives to create more collaborative and understanding communities?

I think Gen Z has a different outlook on the world than previous generations. Not only have we become more politically engaged during a very polarized time in U.S. history, but the only action we’re seeing from our leaders is partisan legislation and finger-pointing between political opponents on social media. This doesn’t create a good example of leadership for the younger generation. Gen Z is also aware of the problems facing our communities and our country, and we’re quick to call out injustices, unfairness, and flaws in the system. So I think this all has made us more frustrated as a generation and unwilling to compromise on our beliefs.

Being able to show our generation a better, more constructive way of engaging, like we do in Bridge, is essential if we want to motivate young people to take action and empower them as future leaders. As a generation, we share many similarities, including the things we value and the issues we care about. If we can show that we’re on the same page and have a better way of problem-solving than our predecessors, I think that will make a huge difference in where we go next.

How do your chapters go about bringing together students across lines of difference? Do you have a meaningful story to highlight successful outcomes?

Our chapters do a lot of work to bring students together on campus. They spend a lot of time forming relationships with other students, professors, faculty, and student organizations on campus and invite them all into discussions. A lot of the feedback we hear from students, especially when it’s their first time in a Bridge discussion, is “wow, I’ve never done anything like this before” or “I didn’t know this was possible.”

I met many of my college friends when I was a part of the BridgeUSA chapter in Arizona, and it’s crazy to think that we could talk about abortion or the cost of living, disagree with each other, and still get lunch afterward. Many of our students across chapters have become good friends with each other. Some have changed their minds on certain issues, and others have kept their same views but learned different things from their peers. It’s exciting when we end a meeting and students are still going back and forth discussing at one of the tables.

Some might say talking to someone who will “never understand them” or whose beliefs “insult and endanger their very existence” causes them more harm than good. What do you say to this? How can fostering openness to different perspectives lead to broader change?

One thing we make clear at BridgeUSA is that we’re not asking people to compromise on their views or their values, and we’re not asking individuals to open themselves up to personal attacks. The goal is to understand one another better and seek ways to move forward as a community despite our differences. So, while we’re also not requiring people who may feel uncomfortable in these discussions to come, that doesn’t excuse their friends from participating in these discussions. If we want to make any progress on LGBTQ rights or address issues of racism or sexism, we have to have those groups represented in the conversation. It’s up to those around us to show up and be represented at the table if we cannot do it ourselves. That’s the only way to make real, tangible solutions in our communities that reflect the diverse voices that make up our nation.

Is there anything you would like people to know or be on the lookout for from BridegeUSA? How can people engage with your organization?

We’re looking to grow a lot in the next two years! If you, or anyone you know, is interested in learning more about BridgeUSA or wants to donate or start a chapter, you can check us out at

We’re seeing young people make a huge difference in our politics, and more people are taking notice. If we want to turn that momentum into tangible change, we need to learn how to better engage with those around us. You can start today with BridgeUSA!

You can stay connected with BridgeUSA on Twitter and Instagram: @bridgeusa_


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