Students, staff and community members gathered in the Colvard Student Union Dawg House at 6 p.m. last Tuesday night for the first-ever Maroon Table Talk.

Hosted by the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center and sponsored by the Dean of Students’ Office, Maroon Table Talk, a series of intentional dialogues where Mississippi State University students, faculty and staff can come together to discuss what is too often considered undiscussable, was one of many events presented to students in celebration of Unity Month.

Montelleo Hobley, a coordinator at the Dean of Students’ Office, said he is excited to see what the Maroon Table Talks hold for the future of unity on campus.

"Unity is a larger-than-life structure that helps us celebrate our uniqueness and strengthens our ties to each other," Hobley said. "This event has given students a space to come together and share thoughts, stressors and hear advice from others about real-life situations which are affecting college students."

The inaugural Maroon Table Talk focused on healthy relationships, safe dating, domestic abuse and more.

The event was tailored to all students with no specific demographic in mind and was designed to instigate peer-led discussions that can enhance the conversations already happening across campus.

Santee Ezell-Johnson, a coordinator within the Division of Student Affairs at MSU, created Maroon Table Talk because of the significance each of its upcoming discussion topics has on students’ lives.

Last Tuesday’s topic was healthy and unhealthy relationships, which Ezell said was important for a positive and safe dating experience.

"We want students to stay safe and have peace of mind when dating," Ezell said. "Dating should be fun and meaningful."

The first-ever Maroon Table Talk featured a panel of six unique people from the MSU campus and Starkville community, as well as two facilitators.

The panelists included Corporal Emmitt Johnson, an eight-year member of the MSU Police Department; Shawanda Brooks, a graduate assistant with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life; Robert Fleming, Student Support Services Coordinator and Velma Givens, CEO and founder of Connected Hearts, a nonprofit located in Starkville.

The facilitators were Corey Fitzgerald and ShirDonna Lawrence. Fitzgerald is a staff counselor at MSU’s Student Counseling Services, and Lawrence is the assistant director at the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.

Brooks, one of the panelists, was moved to join the discussion due to its mission of engaging with students, staff and faculty regarding healthy versus unhealthy relationships.

"This event created the opportunity to allow students to open up about any mental, emotional or personal issues and good experiences regarding their relationship status," Brooks said. "In addition, it was a chance to have authentic conversations about the realities of being single, managing conflict amongst partners and knowing one’s worth."

After an introduction of the facilitators and panelists, the Maroon Table Talk kicked off with a game of "This or That?" for the audience to become more familiar with the group.

Questions ranged from personal relationship preferences such as "extravagant gifts or quality time?" and "physical touch or acts of service?" to topics of debate like "For a first date, would you go to Waffle House or Harvey’s?"

The audience was energetic from the start, but the excitement only grew with encouragement from the panelists. Discussion leaders and audience members alike shared personal stories from past relationships.

Participation was more than welcome at the Maroon Table Talk, and the crowd was given the opportunity to turn in hand-written questions for the panelists to cover.

The event opened with questions involving the definition of a healthy relationship, how to determine when dating is “exclusive” and dating culture in 2019. Though the topic was inherently serious, many laughs were shared over the honest (and occasionally awkward) answers.

In conclusion of the hour and a half discussion, the planning committee was invited to the stage for recognition.

The discussion-based event will continue in the 2019-2020 academic year, and the array of topics has already been decided. These will include mental health, body image, fat shaming, women in leadership, masculinity and Greek life.

The planning committee is seeking student representation for future events, as well as any faculty, staff and community members who would like to participate.

Ezell-Johnson hopes these discussions will spark change and lead to more peer support across campus.

"These crucial conversations help us get out of our comfort zones to learn and grow from each other," Ezell-Johnson said.

Until the Maroon Table Talks resume in the fall, the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center’s Unity Month will be offering a few more events in April. These events include a talent show at 7 p.m. April 17 in Bettersworth Auditorium, Student Appreciation Day, where finals survival kits will be given away, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 22 on the Drill Field and Finals Study Break from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 24 on the Drill Field. 

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