The Power of Empathy In Student Affairs – My Personal Experience

The ability to understand and share the perspective of our students plays a very important role in how effective we are as student affairs professionals and educators in building relationships and helping our students.  Personally, while I fully acknowledge the fact that I can never fully understand today’s students perspectives due to our differences in age and experience, some of my experiences and background help me in not only understanding what their needs and opportunities may be, but in building relationships as well.

Three years ago, I was a discussion leader for a First Year Experience course for international students. Most of them were Chinese with one student from Brazil. For most of them, they had only been in the United States for about two months. In addition to adjusting to the academic lives, they also had to adjust to the cultural norms, language, and navigating their environments as well. Their discomforts with their new environments were very apparent during the first few weeks of the course. In my one-on-one discussions and in class, they shared their issues in trying to understand how the university works, the habits of their American roommates, and difficulties with activities as Americans we take for granted. Language was one of the main barriers during their times of transition. Even going to the grocery stores or taking the bus proved to be difficult for some of them. I would not have been able to appreciate their difficulties to the extent  I did if it was not for my experience traveling to Italy with my wife, only a month before this course. Through my experience preparing for the trip and during our time in Rome and Florence, I was able to feel some of the issues these students were facing.The fact that this was our first time traveling to Europe became a source of stress for me for a couple of months before our trip. I did not know how to speak Italian and while I researched as much as I could through the web, perusing through travel sites, and reading stories from travelers, I could only speculate how our experience would be. I had some difficulty learning Italian even with the multiple translation and language apps I downloaded on my iphone. This difficulty added to my concerns about the trip. I was also worried about being pick-pocketed in Rome. Stories about different tactics used and the prevalence of thieves out in the streets became my focus during our preparation. During our trip, the local Italians we interacted with were very accommodating with our limited Italian, but nevertheless, even ordering food or asking for directions proved to be a challenge. When I met with the students, I shared some of my experience and my issues with our Italy vacation as a way to connect with them. I was able to have genuine discussions with them and offer them reassurance that they were not the only ones who have had to experience the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture and location.

Just last week, I facilitated a transitional course for a one-week summer bridge program for first generation and low income first year students. Having gone to the program myself and as a UCSB alum, I was able to relate to what they may be experiencing and anticipate/address some of their concerns. As a first year generation student and from a low/middle income family myself, I was also able to relate to some of their family values and views on education. While each student certainly brought their unique and individual experience, there were also common topics including financial concerns, first-time away from home, and the lack of directions with their intended majors I was able to share because of my personal experience.

As I had my orientation class for my online MBA last week, I found myself experiencing/feeling the same concerns the students shared during the summer bridge program. One of the students expressed doubt on whether she belonged at UCSB. As she mentioned in class, she realized she was surrounded with high achieving students and she wondered if she could compete with them. I also wonder if I have the aptitude and intelligence to be successful in completing my MBA. What was interesting as well was that one of the lectures was on critical thinking and research, both of which are topics in my orientation class. I have seen the same lectures a few times but I found myself being more interested this time around. During our class discussion, I was able to share some of my perspectives and provide additional information with the topics.

From personal experience, I do find it easier for me to relate and build relationships with others who share similar background and experience. In my interactions with students, especially Filipino-American students, our shared cultural background have proven to be an important piece towards building relationships.

 

 

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