Applied Empathy in Chaos

By Jarrett Webster

The past year was rough, to say the least, between environmental chaos, social injustices, and a global pandemic — all of which are still making student life at UCF precarious. We began 2021 by grudgingly noting that a year had passed since COVID-19 began, but we are continuing our education by whatever means we can manage. I was curious about how professors have employed more empathetic practices and policies at UCF amidst the daily chaos of students’ lives. Many students have had very positive experiences in regard to how professors were able to adapt and continue tending to their students’ needs. In 2021, we need to practice empathy daily for our peers and for our neighbors.

I interviewed five students, from both the undergraduate and graduate levels, to see how they are managing 2021. The questions I asked revolved around empathy and how we can practice it explicitly in this chaotic year. The interviewees seemed to have the same sort of advice, and their definitions of empathy complement each other really well. The interviewees: Kelly, a senior undergraduate Ad/PR major; Becca, a senior undergraduate in Health Sciences; Brianna, a graduate student in the Rhetoric and Composition program; Janice, a graduate student in the Acting MFA, currently writing her thesis; and Zach, an Engineering undergraduate. This is an interactive article, so I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions before reading the students’ responses.

Define empathy in your own words.

I began the interview by asking students to define empathy in their own words. Both Becca and Brianna said it was, “putting yourself in other people’s shoes.” Brianna has experience teaching and was actually in the classroom with second graders last year when schools began to close. Becca is graduating this summer and will continue working as a medical scribe with EMR Scribes. Zach defines empathy as “having been through that same [struggle, you] can relate more to the person.” As UCF students, we can relate to similar experiences, such as learning how to navigate Zoom and how to help our professors navigate the screen-share function. It was enriching for my soul to hear so many contributions of what students defined as empathy. I reflected on how UCF, based on my interviews, would collectively define empathy. As of now, my working definition stands as “having compassion for another person’s feelings and experiences without judgment, so that we may be able to see the world from their perspective.” As the interviews continued, I asked them to keep their definition of empathy in mind, and I ask you to do the same!

How have professors altered their practices to be more empathetic in tending to their students’ needs? To your needs?

UCF professors have gone far beyond what is expected of them in these recent semesters. Many professors altered their lesson plans in late March of last year as COVID-19 hit to keep their students’ education as a high priority despite the online shift. Janice expressed her gratitude as her stage combat professor immediately found new ways to instruct the class virtually. The professor changed gears to practicing yoga and exercising with their students in lieu of physical combat workshopping. Janice was taught some Tai Chi, as well as ‘the language of the fan’- which is what messages an actor can send when using a handheld fan onstage. Janice’s professor practiced empathy to understand that their students still deserved a great education despite the limitations of lockdown.

When Zach was taking ENC 1102, his professor, Dr. Hall, made an increased amount of effort, despite his many involvements with UCF programs, to virtually see his students one-on-one. Zach was still given the necessary attention and feedback to improve on their skills as a writer despite the obstacles that would’ve limited their ability to grow.

Many professors across departments were more lenient with deadlines and extensions as everything went awry. A few professors who are in another time zone or who have students in another time zone have taken the time to make appointments for any time of day. I once emailed one of my professors, Dr. Kane, to meet sometime that week, to which they responded “I could meet today what time works?” Despite instructing more than one class, Dr. Kane, who was in England at the time, agreed to meet at 7:30 pm. EST – which would be approximately 11:30pm in England! Dr. Kane also broke her hand in an accident that semester, yet they proceeded to type paragraphs of feedback on assignments for all of their students, including myself!

Why is empathy so important in 2021?

Kelly quoted The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, where Cherry says to Ponyboy, “Things are rough all over.” I haven’t read The Outsiders for quite some time, but the impact of Kelly’s response resonated with me. Of course, the blaring relatable global issue would be the pandemic, but that isn’t all. There are many who have lost their job(s), who can’t make rent, or who are unsure of the next time they will be able to see their grandparents. There are many people who are still discriminated against and face institutionalized racism, sexism, and other divisive policies. You never really know what exactly someone is going through, so be kind, because things really are rough all over, for everyone.

It is our ability to foster relationships and to care for others that helps us grow. I really appreciate how Brianna talked about our needs as students. She said “a big part of being a student is a student’s mental health and their well-being in general. We’re not just students trying to get the best grades.” We have other needs that require our attention and time. We have to learn how to manage ourselves. “In order to function, we need to have a life.” A student’s mental health can be extremely challenging to nourish and maintain.

However, I think it is more than enough reason for all of us to continue practicing empathy on a daily basis. It is both beneficial to your individual growth and your academic progress, so be kind always. Beth also made a great point about why we should practice empathy. She said that because “we’re not interacting with the world like we used to, [therefore] we need to [use] empathy as a guide” to get back to how we interacted before. This limbo that we feel will not last forever- eventually “face-to-face” won’t be synonymous with a Zoom call.

What can students and staff (professors) do to be more empathetic at this time?

Kelly said that “[empathy] is one of the most important traits someone should have.” She asked that we “remind ourselves to think about others often.” Becca wished that more professors would make a greater effort to have their lectures recorded and more accessible. Becca has to work to pay rent and bills because her family doesn’t have the funds to support her through college. Her work schedule sometimes conflicts with being a full-time student, but with recorded accessible lectures she would still be able to prepare for strenuous exams. Janice hopes that more students and professors will reach out to each other often.

It is difficult to know what someone is going through if there is no open communication. We cannot assume what another person is struggling through, so we must reach out and let our professors know. Brianna also hopes that professors will “let students know that their door is always open.” Zach wanted to tell UCF that “we’re all in this together, and we’ll get through it together one step at a time.” The most important piece of advice that Zach gave was “to ask questions.” With all the chaos in the world today, “the simplest way to understand is to ask [others]: What’s the best thing that I can do to better understand you so that I may help you?”

If you could go back in time and send yourself a message in March of 2020 about the upcoming semesters, what would you say?

“I would tell myself that it’s scary right now, but in one year, the world doesn’t end. You’ll find the internship. You’ll make friends in the digital space. You’ll still have fun. And there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” – Kelly, AD/PR undergraduate student

“Be patient. Be selfless. You’re not going to be able to do a ton of things. I kept thinking about my family and I don’t want them to get sick.” – Brianna, Graduate Rhetoric and Composition student

“You can’t let yourself slow down. You’re gonna hit roadblocks along the way, some bigger than others, but you know that’s life; we get through what we do. It’s not always going to go our way. It’s just a matter of getting through- hopefully tomorrow will be better than today.” – Zach, Engineering undergraduate student

“I would tell myself to reach out more frequently. I am not alone, and I don’t have to struggle alone.” – Janice, Acting MFA student

“It is going to be hard to stay in shape.” – Becca, Health Sciences undergraduate student

I want to reiterate Kelly’s allusion –  “things are rough all over.” Between economic stress, exams, and students’ health, it can be hard to cope. Many professors have tended to their students’ needs, just as many students’ have shown compassion and empathy for their peers. Zach’s question should always be at the forefront of our minds as we strive to finish out 2021:

What’s the best thing that I can do to better understand you so that I may help you?

We all have great obstacles ahead, but everyone is capable of overcoming these issues. I encourage you to seek help from your professors and peers. Allow yourself the opportunity to be helped in whatever capacity you need. Visit CAPS and schedule an appointment with trained professionals. Email your professor about your concerns with assignments and deadlines. Talk to your friends and peers and continue to foster relationships despite our physical isolation. Show compassion and try to understand other peoples’ perspectives without judging them for their circumstance.

Please consider how you can practice empathy in your daily routine. Reflect on your own responses to the interview questions: What have you gained? What can you do to be more empathetic? How has UCF met your needs, and how can you in turn support your community of peers? Empathy is one of the most important traits that we can use daily to impact our community in a positive way; thank you for being a positive influence on your peers.