These days, it’s tempting to grow numb to the polarization of society and the breakdown in public discourse and to retreat into our silos of solidarity. But a liberal arts education has the potential to offer an antidote to these seemingly inevitable fates—through modeling and practicing empathy. At UMBC, students are invited to the table to share their stories and listen to their peers. These acts of educational hospitality help Retrievers find their why and pursue the public good.
It’s the first day of class. You’re looking around, bright-eyed and a little nervous, and then your instructor smiles at the class and says, “One day you are all going to die.” Are you offended? Shocked? Titillated? Horrified? Collectively, the class titters. Already social bonds are forming as Christine Armstrong Mair, associate professor of sociology who specializes in gerontology, continues her spiel. “And if we’re all lucky, that won’t be for a long time.”
As sociologists, says Mair, or more broadly as leaders in an educational setting, “it’s not our task to make somebody think a certain way. Our task is to show them what exists in society and help them feel empathy for the human experience.”
At its most pedestrian roots, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. How can someone else’s emotional experience inform your own personal perspective?
In the best-case scenario, a college campus is a microcosm of its society: a crosshatch of races, ages, and socio-economic backgrounds. And UMBC holds true to those measures. But something different happens when you step into the Loop—you sit next to someone who didn’t go to your high school. You eat at the same table with someone outside of your cultural background. You take a test side by side with someone who voted differently than you. And even more than sharing space, you start sharing notes and books and stories—even your own story—with these strangers and then suddenly they’re no longer strangers.
When empathy is on the table, students and colleagues expand their capacity for hard work. You might change your thesis to address human trafficking or leave your home island to work toward healthy aging for all populations. So pull up a chair, step into someone else’s shoes, and partake in this grand educational potluck.
“With my background—what I’ve seen with human trafficking and migrant smuggling—what can I do as a person with my knowledge and responsibility?”
– Saydeh Karabatis, Ph.D. candidate
Building bridges across campus
You’re sitting at a beach-side cafe in Greece with your husband. It’s 2015 and Greece’s financial troubles are in the news, but the waves of migrants washing ashore are not yet as publicized. As you enjoy your coffee, you see a group of 40 to 50 people sitting seemingly aimless and distraught nearby. Based on their clothing, you make a guess that they are Muslims and Arabic speakers. What do you do?
If you’re Saydeh Karabatis, originally from Lebanon—and a survivor of the 17-year Lebanon civil war—and fluent in Arabic, you let that immediate moment of empathy guide you and approach the group.
Karabatis and her husband George, a professor of information systems at UMBC and from Greece, changed the plans for their summer in the Mediterranean to volunteer as translators, food finders, and listeners for the refugees, primarily fleeing the war in Syria and arriving in Greece in dire straits. They did so again in 2017.
As Karabatis interacted with these desperate groups and read more about their plight, she realized familiar patterns were emerging in their stories. They were not just migrants fleeing a war, they were trafficked people, paying dearly for not-safe passage, and many others headed toward labor and a life they did not sign up for. Struck by the limits of her actions—and even her emotional capacity for empathy—when Karabatis returned home to Maryland, she found her next step.
Karabatis, who has a master’s in computer science from UMBC and works for the university’s Division of Information Technology, knew she would need to fill her time when her two sons left for college. Karabatis asked herself, “With my background—what I’ve seen with human trafficking and migrant smuggling—what can I do as a person with my knowledge and responsibility?”
She contacted Vandana Janeja, then chair of information systems, and explained the project she wanted to complete for her Ph.D. During her master’s, Karabatis had tried to conduct a research project on human trafficking for a class with Janeja but couldn’t find a robust data set to use for her project and ended up having to leave the work incomplete. This time, she pitched using the stories of trafficked people. “Instead of dealing with numbers, numbers as data, I am now dealing with stories as data—the stories of people being trafficked,” says Karabatis.
It’s not been easy going. Many trafficked people are not open about their stories, for fear of retribution or simply because of how horrific the experience was. Additionally, it’s hard for Karabatis to take in their trauma. “I’m reading about all these abuses,” says Karabatis. “I’m reading about sex trafficking, labor trafficking, organ trafficking, human smuggling. I can’t imagine—how can a human being do something like that to another human?”
Eventually though, with the end goal of combating the network of smuggling routes, Karabatis says, you need to reach a level where you can try to put your emotions aside: “You need to detach yourself from these emotions if you want to do something to help these people. If your emotions are the only thing driving you, you wouldn’t be able to produce the research. Use these emotions as a spark and then put them on the side.”
Caring starts with listening
You’re a teenager riding the bus for fun in Puerto Rico, killing time by people watching. You’re struck by the number of older adults on the bus, noticing their many bags stuffed with x-rays and other apparent medical paperwork. Unthinkingly, you just assume they’re enjoying the ride like yourself, but this older generation seems eager to talk.
If you’re Jaminette Nazario, a curious if bored high schooler, you strike up a conversation.
What she heard from her fellow travelers shook her: “‘We don’t have people to help….’ ‘My wife just died of cancer….’ ‘I need to use this bus to get to my medical appointments.’” It wasn’t until she was pursuing her bachelor’s degree in social sciences that Nazario was hit by the realization that those conversations might have been the only time those older bus riders had talked to someone that day. “So I started thinking about the many barriers older adults have in order to achieve healthy aging,” she says. “When older adults don’t have resources or people, they miss out on social networks that are vital to healthy aging.”
This aha moment would propel Nazario to a master’s degree in public health with a focus on gerontology, but in order to study further, she’d have to leave her island for the next academic step.
Now in her second year of UMBC’s Ph.D. program in gerontology—a joint program with the University of Maryland, Baltimore—Nazario is beginning to research aging Hispanic immigrants and their increasing challenges accessing medical care.
And unlike her fellow bus riders, she’s not doing this alone. “Even though it’s really hard to be far from family, I feel like I’m home here. And I love how Dr. Mair teaches.” Like most classes, says Nazario, there are readings and discussion, but Mair brings a “specific dynamic” to the setting. Each class starts with questions prepared by the students, which is really empowering, says Nazario. It might end up that the class all resonates with one question and they stay on that topic, guiding the trajectory of the discussion.
In summer 2022, Nazario joined Mair and others from the gerontology program at a conference in Japan. She presented a poster on her research and walked away from her talk with a new level of confidence. “There were professionals from Japan and China and they’re asking me about something in the United States…it was kind of cool. People came up and treated me with so much respect.”
Students in Mair’s gerontology classes are finding their drive to solve crises in aging care not only because they might have loved ones suffering, but because aging (if we’re lucky) and death are unifying elements. “It’s something that really applies to all of us,” says Mair, “to make sure that we’re taking care and setting up a good system so that when we all arrive there, that us and all of our people that we care about are okay.”
Inclusive classrooms by design
You walk to the front of the media and communications class you’re teaching. Students are sitting in traditional desks in rows, facing the whiteboard where you’ll teach. They’re silent, spaced out or on their phones. They seem to breathe a sigh of relief when you walk in, grateful to know where to put their attention. Later, in a different section of that class, you meet in a newly designed lecture hall filled with round tables and no clear lectern space. In this format, the students are already grouped together and chatting.
If you’re Donald Snyder, principal lecturer in media and communication studies, you know there is science behind what forms good class cohesion and participation. He learned it from the experts in UMBC’s Faculty Development Center (FDC).
In addition to learning about and playing around with classroom set-up to facilitate more natural conversations (and to rid the learning experience from a “perceived hierarchy” as FDC Director Linda Hodges calls it), Snyder and others who use the FDC are supported in using inclusive and culturally responsive teaching.
While culturally responsive pedagogy isn’t a new concept—it centers and nurtures students’ unique cultural strengths—Hodges says that recent world events have brought the teaching style more into focus. Citing the death of George Floyd and the nation’s response—especially young people—and the COVID-19 pandemic as two significant flashpoints, Hodges says inclusive pedagogy and empathetic practices have become more imperative than ever. Room design is just one tool in the FDC toolbelt that can work to democratize students’ experience. It can erase the divide between the front row handraiser and the back row hider, giving equal footing to all types of students and their stories.
“Instructors are recognizing that they need to try to connect with and hear their students’ voices,” says Hodges. “This will create a sense of belonging. It’s become quite clear in the research that one of the key factors in whether students succeed and persist in education is the feeling of belonging.”
Snyder has made the most of the FDC’s offerings, including inviting Hodges’ team to observe his teaching and offer feedback. He starts many of his classes with some tools for students to learn about self-regulation, basically how to use available resources to make the most of education. He introduces them to Bloom’s Taxonomy, which places rote memorization at the bottom of the pyramid and evaluating and creating a unique argument at top. “I want the students to know, I’m not asking to memorize anything,” says Snyder, “but we need to learn to be critical when we’re thinking about media and communication texts and how these things operate.”
Giving students tools to succeed in college—go to office hours, block out time for studying, get enough sleep—may seem basic and far afield from teaching and practicing empathy, but in the taxonomy of educational success, says Snyder, this foundation leads to the heavy-lifting tools at the top of the pyramid.
Snyder helps them harness existing interests, in tech or media, and then run with it, academically. He wants them to ask, “‘How can I turn that switch? What is the thing that I can grab onto? What do I really want to know about?’”
He also listens to them, and attempts to model vulnerability in the classroom. “Yes, these are students and they need to understand content, but they’re also humans who are struggling and we’re all struggling and there’s a human condition aspect we can’t ignore as instructors.”
Swapping stories strengthens neighborly bonds
You’re driving your car on tour in Texas when you’re hit by a criminally intoxicated drunk driver. You survive, but a host of physical and psychological repercussions are still taking their toll 10 years later. As a musician, you fuel your art with your resiliency and work through the healing process by creating music. But when the pandemic hits, and live, in-person music disappears, you look for a pivot point—and the community you’re missing.
If you’re Kristin Putchinski, a student in UMBC’s M.F.A. program for intermedia and digital arts, you lean into the concept of “platonic intimacy.”
Putchinski coined the term to sum up her goal of “trying to strengthen neighborly bonds. What I’m looking for is an intimate experience between two people. And when people hear intimacy, they tend to think that it’s about a romantic or sexual component. But how do I frame that intimacy—and how important intimacy is—in terms of friendship and neighborliness?”
Through a graduate assistantship jointly funded by jointly funded by UMBC and the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Community Engagement Center (CEC), Putchinski was given the opportunity to shadow CEC’s then-director Tyrone Roper and learn about the center’s mission, which includes strengthening neighborly bonds. Roper told Putchinski they were looking for ways to engage the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. When Putchinski was tasked with creating an art project for CEC the following semester, she kept this age goal in mind.
As a student in UMBC’s intermedia program, Putchinski “explores the textures between mediums,” she says. As a musical artist who performed under the stage name ellen cherry, “I have 25 years of experience as a performing songwriter and storyteller, creating my own and interpreting other people’s stories.” So she began to imagine a strange game of telephone that would give participants the opportunity to swap stories, with the end result of creating instances of platonic intimacy.
This multifaceted project connected post-high-school-aged individuals with older generations through curated, facilitated sessions. The participant-pairs met four different times and talked about a song, a photograph, and a memory—and at the last session, the neighbors “swapped” their stories. A recording of the swap was sent to local artists who interpreted the stories into their own mediums—painting, poetry, and a video soundscape. Then, at an event open to the public in the CEC, the storytellers took the stage, retelling their neighbor’s story. For example, a Latinx college graduate took to the stage to reshare her stranger-turned-partner’s tale of being raised in foster care in 1970s Baltimore.
Putchinski was eager to find out “when you talk to somebody that’s 40 years different from you…did your perceptions change about yourself, about them, and what were those changes and the answers?”
It makes sense she’s asking these questions based on her ongoing empathy toward the man who altered her life in an accident 10 years ago. “It was very conflicting for me to be the victim of a crime that I really feel like was committed not by a criminal but by a person who abuses alcohol. At the base level, he’s a human being. How can we think about his human potential after this experience and mine?”
“Imagine intensely” a better way forward
One of the greatest assertions of the liberal arts comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poetry.” The short-lived husband of Frankenstein’s creator writes, “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”
On college campuses, and at UMBC in particular, through thoughtful classroom instruction and intentional commitment to community, students trade their stories—pains and pleasures alike. Less of a transaction and more of a gift, these stories are invitations to grow in understanding, change your opinion, or shape your research.
But walking in someone else’s shoes doesn’t mean you misplace your own shoes along the way—in fact professors hope it helps you find your footing at UMBC. “That open-mindedness and appreciation and empathy does not necessarily mean that you lose other parts of yourself,” says Anne Brodsky, professor and chair of the psychology department. “It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.”
You’re walking down Academic Row. You’re a first-generation college student with a lot of questions. You’re a returning student giving college a second (or third) chance. You’re a first-year who misses the familiar halls of high school. You see other Retrievers walking in groups, heading into classrooms, rubbing True Grit’s bronze nose, making conversation with their peers. What do you do?