Nurturing a culture of empathy

  • 2 min to read

The older I get, the more empathy I have. More years lived and more life experiences have taught me that we all need help at times and another person’s experience today could be mine tomorrow.

I have vivid memories of specific instances when a friend, family member, or even a stranger, showed me empathy—when they were able to communicate to me that they identified with my experience, that they understood where I was coming from. Those moments have stuck with me in part because they were moments of shared humanity, of connection and community.

At Walla Walla University we focus on educating students around four core themes: excellence in thought, generosity in service, beauty in expression, and faith in God. As our students step outside the classroom to interact with organizations and individuals in the Walla Walla Valley and as their own understanding expands, we wish for them to grow in empathy, connection, and community.

No one likes to be overlooked. We all wish to be seen and heard, and we each have unique ways of showing others that we see and hear them. This compassion and recognition of one another can bring about positive changes in our world.

Consider the work of Austin Archer, WWU professor of psychology and education and 2019 recipient of the Walla Walla University Community Service Award. Archer’s vigorous and multi-faceted investments in the Walla Walla community include joining a group of volunteers that worked at the Washington State Penitentiary to engage with inmates who were within six months of release. The helped orient inmates to the world outside of prison, identify housing, plan for further education, and in other ways prepare for release. That group of volunteers ultimately formed a non-profit organization known as the STAR (Successful Transition and Re-entry) Project, which has expanded the work. Austin was a founding member of the STAR Project board and eventually served as board president. The interventions of this group have been shown to have a significant effect on reducing returns to prison.

Consider Curtis Kuhlman, WWU assistant professor of health and physical education, whose volunteer work in the Walla Walla Valley includes partnering to start the annual Onion Man Triathlon and the Walla Walla Marathon. He founded WWU Kidnastics, a gymnastics program for children in the valley that has been in operation for 38 years, and he was recently recognized by the Blue Mountain Chapter of the Red Cross for setting the record for training and certifying the most lifeguards in the Walla Walla Valley. Kuhlman works to provide opportunities for individuals of all ages to be physically active, fit, and safe.

WWU students are catching this vision as well. This year 18 students are working with the Walla Walla Disability Network Buddy Program. They spend time each week participating in various activities with disabled adults in order to lift their spirits and provide a connection with someone outside their direct caregiver.

One WWU engineering student is a chef every Sunday at 5 a.m. for one of the homeless ministries in town. The WWU Biology Cub is helping with an environmental cleanup project with the Tri-State Steelheaders water program. Other students are part of the WWU Friends of Children Club in which they pair up with elementary school students just to talk and share lunch. Elementary teachers in these schools are seeing that their young students are more excited about coming to school because of these relationships.

In our fast-paced world of increasing complexity, regulation, technology, and social challenge, the timeless example of Jesus is as relevant as ever and a way of life we diligently pursue at WWU. Generosity in service means nurturing a culture where it is second nature to take action and show empathy to another person. Such small acts of kindness can make a big difference in our valley. We at WWU look forward to joining you in building such a culture of kindness and grace in 2020.

John McVay is president of Walla Walla University.