Enjoying the First-Years, Looking at Life, and Understanding Empathy

Page 3C women

Page 3C women

Last evening I had the rare opportunity to stop and enjoy the successful start to another academic year. Now that we’ve reached our seventh year at Westmont, each one feels more and more like home to Pam and me. But last night was special. This year, I’m inviting every first-year student to my office by hosting a one-hour reception with their residential hall section. Last night, I met Page 3C, a section of first-year women. We had our picture taken together on the steps of Kerrwood Hall, moved inside and spent an hour talking about their lives, their backgrounds and their hopes and dreams. Before we broke for the evening, they presented me with two gifts, one a book of excerpts from great writers on a variety of subjects all related to my work as president. Then they gave me a home-made message chain in which each student had written a brief note of encouragement. We finished the time with Tori Kessel, the resident assistant, asking if several of the women could lay hands on me and pray. As I listened to these prayers of hope, encouragement and blessing, I was deeply moved by the compassion and concern these young women showed for me, their president. It truly inspired me. So a big thank you to Beka, Natalie, Ryn, Amy, Kayla, Annaelise, Kaitlin, Kat, Meredith, Mehar, Holli, Evyn, Rachel, Christina, Madison, Miranda, Chandler, Sammy, Rachel and Mia.

I love being with our students because they remind me of the importance of our work. They also help me think about what we need to do to further their education. We’re working on an initiative, the LAUNCH program, which will focus on the way we structure students’ experiences and learning opportunities to best prepare them for life. We’ve adopted the tag line, “Come for college, launch for life.” From the moment students arrive at Westmont, we want them to think about their lives after college. Rather than racing through their education, enjoying their experiences but missing the deeper meaning, students will begin to see how their four years of college contribute to the larger tapestry of their lives.

Of course, no week goes by without me delving into my latest research interest: neuroscience, leadership and the eight life-giving virtues. Embedded in this project is a particular interest in understanding how we develop and express empathy. More and more studies demonstrate the central importance of establishing and expressing empathy in all areas of life—and especially the importance of empathy in effective leadership. In my EB150: Seminar in Executive Leadership class (team-taught with Professor Rick Ifland), we begin each semester by filling out two questionnaires that demonstrate the depth and capacity of our empathy. We then ask for volunteers to undergo brain-mapping experiments that help identify the extent to which we’re capable of empathy. I’ve just received the research results from last spring, and they’re fascinating.

Several questions always arise with this topic. Is empathy learned or innate? If someone lacks empathy, can they develop it? It’s clear that different individuals possess different capacities for empathy, just as they differ in their ability to connect with people. Nevertheless, researchers have made a significant discovery: People can develop empathy through careful attention and intentional practice of the spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and reflection, for as little as 12 minutes a day. This practice of daily prayer and reflection quiets different areas of our brain. It diminishes stress and lowers anxiety. It also helps us think through intentional activities that bring meaning and purpose to our life and especially to our relationships. It also helps us experience the real presence of God.

This morning, as I reflect on last night, I realize I feel much more connected to Page 3C women because they prayed for me, asked me questions about myself and gave me a few modest but priceless gifts. I’ve discovered that the language of God includes the grammar of a gracious welcome, a kind word, and a simple act of compassion and generosity. Thanks for this great lesson, ladies.

Blessings, Dr. Beebe

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