Empathy and Higher Education – Being mindful and making a difference

What does it mean to be a good person? Who gets to define it? Why does that matter for higher education and you? In this current political climate, it becomes so easy to judge others.

When I was a kid I knew I wanted to be a teacher. In those days, it was because I was excited to write on an overhead projector. As I got older and started high school I developed a passion for history. I was able to see that history was more than just names, dates, and facts. Rather, it was a roadmap of sorts that helped me make sense of what was happening in the world. It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t understand where you’ve been.

I see history as being more relevant than ever. So many horrible events have occurred throughout our past, particularly in the United States. From slavery, to the Civil Rights Movement, and the Stonewall Riot all the way to the present day and our divided nation. Many of these events, while helping to move us forward shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.

Why do we so often start by assuming others are different instead of finding the similarities? A quick course in bias or diversity training tells us that as humans we are hardwired to make shortcuts in our brain to conserve energy and take the path of least resistance. This means we take in information to quickly decide if someone is friend or foe. And I get it. As I spend some time with my nieces today, I realize just how much I want to protect them from “bad people”. But I have to think about who the “bad person” is. Of course, there are people in the world who do bad things. That doesn’t always make them bad people. But I have to wonder, am I a bad person because of the way I judge people?

Yes and no. I can’t circumvent years of biological development. I can however, become aware of the thoughts running through my head. I can stop and ask myself where these judgements are coming from. Are they accurate or are they based on my own socialization? How can I determine the facts? For me, mindfulness means paying attention to my inner thoughts and reactions. I consider how my body is physically reacting to what’s happening. In doing so, I can usually take a minute to think about it and usually make a better decision.

This is where I see higher education coming into play. I believe the main goal of higher education is to teach students to think critically. But what does that actually mean? Yes, you absolutely need to be able to take a problem and think through the various aspects and come up with solutions. I get that. More importantly though, I think this has to do with the way we teach students to come to these conclusions. No one works alone or in a vacuum and we rely on others for so much. It is in these classrooms and this environment that we can help shape the future of this country.

So, how do we make this happen? It starts with you. My guiding question for life is who do I want to be in whatever situation I am in? As a friend? As a teacher? Ultimately, this is a reflection on values and how these values show up in different situations. I am guided by kindness, honesty, and courage. In every interaction I strive to be open, vulnerable, real, and strong. I stand up for what I believe is right knowing how I want to show up. It is easy to yell, get angry or judge others as a way of getting your point across. And that works. Sometimes. But it usually leaves feeling people feeling afraid, devalued, or just plain hurt. As someone who values kindness, hurting others is the last thing I want to do.

What if, instead of yelling, we decided to listen? And I mean truly listen. Not listen to respond. Not get distracted by questions we want to ask. Not interrupt to tell a story about this one time when we experienced the same thing. But really listen. Hear the emotions in someone’s voice. Read their facial expressions and figure out what they mean. Ask them for clarification and check for understanding. It is amazing what happens when people just listen. When was the last time you really listened to someone?

What if, instead of getting angry, we choose to be kind? Let me tell you, I am a strong, stubborn and passionate person. I definitely get frustrated easily and I don’t always show up as my best self. When I feel myself getting frustrated (usually tense shoulders and clenched fists) I pay attention to my physical reaction.  I stop and think. Why am I getting angry? What is being said and how am I interpreting it? What am I assuming about what’s being said and about the person saying it? How do I know I’m correct? Giving myself this time to pause has helped me give others the benefit of the doubt. How often do you notice what is happening within you?

What if, instead of judging others, we took a step back and thought about all the things that could be happening in their life? People show up in many different ways depending on their current life circumstance. We all have days when we are at our best and worst. What happens if people notice and help us get over the hurdle? When we reserve our judgement and get the facts, we develop more informed and better opinions. We also typically make better decisions. Ask for clarification. Do your research. Communicate. Have you caught yourself judging someone else?

And for those who are unable to speak, what if, instead of letting them stay silent, we spoke up? I have been in classrooms, meetings, and relationships where I watch people get cast aside. In American culture the squeaky wheel gets the grease. What about those who take longer to process? What happens when we hold space instead of assuming that we all operate in the same way? In my experience, new ideas or thoughts emerge. People, when asked to participate, feel valued and heard. In my experience, holding space and letting others speak goes a lot further than me listening to myself talk.

This is also where critical thinking and higher education comes back. This is where being one person makes a difference. We need to expand our definition to include empathy, adaptability, and tolerance for ambiguity. It also means we need to teach students and ourselves what it means to be mindful. Ask questions. Check the facts. Communicate. We can teach students to do these things. We can ask them these questions and push them to confront their own values and beliefs. We can challenge and inspire them and us to think differently. After all, if we aren’t moving forward for the better, aren’t we just rewriting the mistakes of the past


Bethany Ulman is a Student Success Counselor for OSU's Extended Campus. She can be reached via email at bethany.ulman@oregonstate.edu.

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