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Building community

There, at the front of the classroom, stands Elizabeth Dickinson. She’s addressing an assemblage of, in her words, “highly motivated, talented, very smart” UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School undergraduate students. The conversation is flowing. Dickinson is excited.

But she remains a bit mystified. It’s all so unexpected – this business of standing before business school students. It’s not a place Dickinson imagined being. She has a liberal arts background. Prior to arriving in Chapel Hill, she’d never stepped into a business school classroom.

“It was a huge culture shock,” she says of her first impressions. “The first month, I was thinking, ‘These students are intense. What did I get myself into?’”

Dickinson, a management and corporate communication professor, says her primary classroom objective is to build community and rapport – to generate spirited interaction.

“What excites me is when I pose something to students and ask them to analyze it, knowing they might be challenged thinking about it,” Dickinson explains, “but then seeing them grapple with it, and then us all learning from that.”

This is what she’s gotten herself into, and she’s quite pleased she did.

Still, she just never could have expected it.

First of all, Dickinson never imagined, as a kid, having a PhD affixed to her name. Raised in San Bernardino, California, she’s a first-generation college student. She’d always done well in school, but hadn’t figured on attending college. Once there, she found her niche.

“I stumbled into the communication courses,” she says. “They are very misunderstood, but I loved them because they’re so interdisciplinary. You look at psychology, organizations, sociology, linguistics, rhetoric, cultural studies – you can get everything in communication courses.”

She earned a master’s, took seven years off to work abroad, in corporate America, and in nonprofit. She then returned to academia, completing her doctorate at the University of New Mexico. Her research examines intercultural communication, environmental communication, gender and diversity.

Dickinson’s classes are largely discussion based: light on the lecturing with lots of questions, dialogue and real-world examples.

Building community with students “starts from day one with a supportive demeanor and tone that I strive to set in the classroom,” she says. “This points to a theory called ‘communication climate’ – we create a vibe in a room based on our verbal, nonverbal and emotional interactions with people.”

A typical discussion in her Gender at Work class – which she introduced in her second year at UNC and teaches to both MBAs and Undergraduate Business students of all genders – is on gender and confidence, a theory that suggests that women are less confident in the workplace than men, and that to become more so women need to be taught certain things.

“But I don’t believe that women are less confident,” Dickinson affirms. “So what I’ll do is take gender and confidence, throw it against the wall, have it break into a hundred pieces, and analyze each piece. I’ll ask students, ‘Why are we making these assumptions? What does this have to do with gender? What does it have to do with communication? What are the implications for the workplace?’

“And when we do that, we might find that maybe we have it wrong. Maybe some people are too confident or some climates too aggressive or we’re trying to change some people to fit troublesome situations. Looking at things differently and more critically is my goal.”

This learning experience, she confirms, is mutual. Dickinson continues to grow acclimated to this world she hadn’t imagined inhabiting. And she finds this a particularly exciting time to be on campus.

Since she arrived at UNC Kenan-Flagler the exploration of the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion has accelerated and are being more comprehensively discussed.

“Some Undergraduates, MBA students and faculty want it, but, everyone needs it,” Dickinson says. “As we create more diversity-related classes, we’ll see more students who want to take them.”

To study these topics, she was selected as a faculty scholar at the Carolina Women’s Center. Her project there is called “It’s Everyone’s Business: An Analysis of Gender Diversity and Business Schools.” Business schools are becoming increasingly diversified but not necessarily inclusive or equitable, she says, “and with this come these conversations.”

She also works with the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program on a gender initiative, teaches in UNC Executive Development’s “Women in Business” program and sits on UNC’s Status of Women Committee.

As a Californian, Dickinson is struck with the inherent politeness of the South, but says it doesn’t inhibit those lively classroom conversations – not once things get rolling.

“If you build an atmosphere that requires people to engage, and you motivate them to do so,” she affirms, “they will more likely engage with you.”

She’s clearly succeeding in that regard. On the official University evaluations website, one student wrote, “Easily the most entertaining and captivating class I have every week.” Another writes, “Professor Dickinson was absolutely phenomenal.”

For Dickinson her goal is “to keep becoming more comfortable in this unexpected skin that I’ve grown here.”