Take Lessons of Empathy beyond Pandemic, into the Classroom

This piece first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat.

COVID-19 has thrown higher education into an unprecedented period of uncertainty. Funding sources, school openings, grades — each facet of the system is under a microscope. As another crop of seniors make way for a new crop of freshmen in the fall, the lesson to learn and take forward is the importance of empathy in the college classroom.

Alumni often speak to their college experience as something otherworldly; a mythic, four-year segue from childhood to the “real world.” This mirage affirms the dangerous worldview that college life is disassociated from personal life. The pandemic offers a blunt reminder that the two worlds are inextricably bound, from personal health to home life.

In a 2019 survey of over 50 four-year institutions, 46% of students reported experiencing housing insecurity — that’s nearly half the seats in a lecture hall. Universities have long advocated for at-risk populations with programs such as Florida State University’s Great Give and Unconquered Scholars which function as financial support systems. While they operate on the periphery, the average student is unaware and inattentive to the problems of their peers living on the margins.

The move to remote learning brings the issue of marginalization into the face of every student as worries about access to housing plaster headlines. Realizing the varying economic situations of college students disrupts the idea that an academic life is separable from a personal one.

Increasing awareness of peer economic hardships is coupled with a greater understanding of mental health and the amplifying effects of the pandemic.

On college campuses, this is nothing new for students or faculty. According to a 2019 research study by the American Health College Association, approximately 66% of students felt overwhelming anxiety. Professors are not exempt from mental health stressors, either; one professor cites grant deadlines, burnout and loneliness as primary factors in low mental health.

While the pandemic is increasing stressors in the academic community, there is a sense of communal fight and understanding. More thought is woven into emails, deadlines are accommodating, and mental health check-ins preface lectures and announcements.

Universities are heralded for their intellectual collaboration. The pandemic offers the reminder — the opportunity — to collaborate on more than just academia. In a recent article, English Professor Dr. Margaret Price at Ohio State University discusses the importance of remaining connected during a crisis. She speaks to the emotional resilience and open dialogue stemming from the current uncertainty, an important part of education that should not be left in the virtual classroom.

This empathy is what we need to remember when we enter the classroom again; when we are surrounded by peers experiencing unbeknownst hardships while also fighting for their education. To quote Dr. Zeigler from the 2020 Commencement, “Always be kind — to everyone — always.”

We cannot close our eyes as Florida reopens. The multi-faceted lives of a student and faculty member cannot fade into the periphery. Florida has the power, and humanitarian obligation, to reimagine the college classroom as an environment of both intellectual growth and empathy.

Amber Hedquist

Amber Hedquist is a senior majoring in English with a minor in communications at Florida State University. She is also the public affairs manager for the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.

The featured image is from Inside Higher Education.

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