ETC Circles program offers space for reflective conversation, building resiliency

Starting this fall, students will be able to participate in a new Lilly Program offering called ETC (or ‘Embody The Change’) Circles. ETC Circles will provide an opportunity for students to engage in reflective discussion with a small group of their peers on a weekly basis. The program seeks to enable students to ‘embody the change’ that they wish to see — either in themselves or their community.

ETC Circles will be a replacement for another Lilly Program called Worthy Questions, which was phased out this year in order to make space for the ETC Circles. Like its predecessor, ETC Circles will really emphasize the transformative power of conversation.

“The idea, similar to in Worthy Questions, is that the four peers in your circle ask you open, honest, curious, worthy questions such that by the end of the session you feel like you have a more focused perspective on how to proceed in the transformation you want to see in your life,” Lilly Program Coordinator Christian Smith ’14 said. “And in each session, you have a community of compassion that will make you feel more resilient in enacting that change.”

Smith was part of the team that dreamt up and is implementing the program, along with Lilly Program Associate Eily Marlow, Associate Dean of Students Lisa Landreman, and Associate Director of the Health and Wellness Center Ted Rueff.

While Worthy Questions was a group of fifteen students, ETC Circles hopes to be bigger and reach different parts of the campus.

“We really want ETC Circles to be spaces where people are getting to know people from outside their normal social groups,” Smith said. “So we’re trying to get people from all realms of campus and we’re trying to get people to talk to one another from all realms of campus.”

Currently, the Lilly Program only serves a small fraction of Macalester students. According to Marlow, ETC Circles is part of a plan to expand their presence in the lives of more students.

The Lilly Program works with students to provide spaces for reflective discussions and intentional community.

“The Lilly Program is about fostering reflective spaces, asking the bigger questions about meaning and purpose, and providing space for vocational exploration and ethical leadership — questions of how we can bring our values into the public sphere” Marlow said.

“I think that’s incredibly relevant to Macalester. People really live out their values here, but in the larger world it’s more difficult. [The] Lilly [Program] is really looking at how to sustain that long-term, even when the culture might be working against it,” Marlow said.

This focus on living out one’s values outside of campus life is especially present in the ETC Circles program.

“Our hope is to foster more reflective spaces on campus and to give students the skills to have reflective conversations not just within the context of ETC Circles, but also to have those capacities to then use in conversations in friendships and other relationships and professional roles,” Marlow said.

Creating this reflective space is the centerpiece of the ETC Circles program, as Marlow, Smith, Rueff and Landreman hope that students will get to know their peers and hold one another accountable towards achieving their goals.

Landreman stressed that another important change from Worthy Questions is the role of staff in the program, as groups will now be facilitated by students rather than staff members.

“ETC Circles will teach students how to lead a sustainable, healthy life, and work towards goals they want [to achieve], but will offer the opportunity for peers to learn from peers with staff support and consultation,” Landreman said. “We know [in the past] sometimes what gets people to attend is the accountability with staff, but we’re hoping that students will see value in committing to one another.”

Listening to others, according to Marlow, is a crucial part of the equation.

“College can be a very selfish place and there aren’t often places where we give of our time to listen to others,” Marlow said. “In some ways, that’s one of the incredible things about this space. It’s not only about finding the aspect of your life that’s in need of change and spending eight weeks focusing on that with the support and accountability of your peer community. You’re also going to be sitting and witnessing and listening to and supporting another person’s focus, or place where they are desiring transformation.”

Through creating intentional community and thoughtful conversation, ETC Circles program hopes to build a sense of resiliency in students, helping them find energy and focus through a sense of peer-to-peer accountability.

“We want to foster a sense of resiliency in students so they can wake up the next day having focus and channeled energy to enact the changes they want to enact, whether they are social changes, personal changes or health changes,” Smith said.

“Resiliency is about the ability to weather and even thrive in difficult circumstances,” Rueff said in an email. “Contemporary college life is inherently stressful and so anything we can do to contribute to our own resiliency will be to our benefit. Taking time and feeling supported in reflecting on whether and how our personal attitudes and practices are healthy and sustainable, and how we can embrace positive change, is key to improving our sense of resiliency.”

The ETC Circles program strives to be more than just a place for students to discuss and reflect. It hopes to provide a foundation for future challenges and work.

“This notion [is] that to be a global citizen, to be an effective change agent, one has to do the contemplative work around self-awareness and self-acceptance and to be able to move in other communities with more confidence and grace,” Marlow said. “In some ways it’s really about resiliency, about helping students to become more resilient so that they can go off and do all these amazing things they will do in the world. It’s not talking just for talking’s sake. It’s really about how to build a strong foundation within one’s self to then do this important work.”