Open Circle helped shape my values

Eleanor beside a pond with her three children

Celebrating 20 Years of Diversity: where are they now?

Alumni share how Student Open Circles influenced their life path

by Eleanor Alexander, Open Circle Alumni

I was privileged to be involved with Student Open Circles at the time that the organization was founded, growing out of a previous campus group that Jeff and Marybeth led. I was impressed at that time with the courage and authenticity of Jeff and Marybeth, as they left positions with a funded national organization to better respond to the needs that they encountered among students at McMaster. The students I met through Open Circle in the early 2000s were a bright and interesting group of people with diverse backgrounds. Friends that I met at that time, some of whom I have maintained contact with, included people raised in Muslim, Jain, Christian, and non-religious households. Between the diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds, to the ever-present diversity of personalities, the common thread was always support and inclusion. Everyone was welcome, whether at discussion groups, potlucks, or retreats. For me, Open Circle activities were a refuge from the stressors of academics, financial worries, and the pressures to choose a career path.

I was involved in a small discussion group for almost three years, first as a participant and then as a student leader, facilitating a small group alongside Jeff. In many ways, those experiences led me to discover talents and interests that led me to my current career as a high school Philosophy and Social Science teacher. The wide variety of materials, from book excerpts, songs, and poems, that Jeff and Marybeth shared, were influential in exposing me to new perspectives on the meaning of life, relationships, vocation, and finances. I’ve since shared some of those same materials with high school students that I’ve worked with. Reading quotations by Parker Palmer on vocation was a lifelong gift to me as I reflected on career possibilities for after graduation; in the hopes of sharing this, I post a similar quotation on my classroom wall each semester and refer students to it when they discuss feeling pressured from parents or others.

The mentorship that Jeff provided me on facilitating group discussions helped me learn to include diverse voices in discussion – a skill that is critically important in my current career. As Jeff and I have naturally contrasting personalities, I learned a lot through our preparation for group meetings and through observing the gentle nudging that he used to introduce new viewpoints into discussions or to draw out quiet group participants.

Now – gulp – twenty years onward, with three young children, a mortgage, a demanding career and the challenges of a cross-cultural marriage, I can say with certainty that my involvement in Open Circle helped to shape my values and to discover my strengths. I was privileged to be involved with an organization that explicitly prioritized inclusion and diversity well before the broader societal shift towards these values. It was deeply valuable for me to be in intentional spaces where each of us was encouraged to listen to our hearts and to pause and reflect; this helped me have the courage to make decisions according to my own values. It also influenced my work as an educator. For all these reasons and more, I feel blessed to have been part of Open Circle and I’m grateful for opportunities to reconnect.

Students sharing a meal at Jeff and Marybeth's house

Eleanor (middle) as a student, enjoying a meal together in Marybeth and Jeff's home.