Category Archives: empathy

A Helper’s FIRE

I’ve talked with people who after many years in a particular kind of work feel unsettled as if they are not doing the kind of work that fulfills their passion. Others I’ve had conversations with have changed the kind of work they do many times. They say that they get restless after the bloom of doing something different begins to fade.

Like those I’ve spoken with who wonder if there is something that they should be doing rather than what they are doing with their lives, I’ve had these thoughts. But for me, these thoughts have been fleeting. During my career journey, I took many of the assessments that purport to help career searchers begin to narrow their focus. Interpretations of my various assessment results showed a consistency in that whatever I chose for a career, I would be a “helper.”

I defined being a helper as someone who would provide support to others in reaching their goals and human potential. The question for me was how this might be realized in a specific career. Coming of age in the 1960s, I didn’t believe that the universe of options was open to me. Going into the medical field was my teenage dream. However, the reality of my financial situation made that dream unrealistic as a goal.

Being a teacher was one way that I could become a helper. However, it was a choice for which I settled rather than one for which I had a strong inclination. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was during these years that I thought I was settling that I found my passion. Teaching helped me realize that young people found it easy to relate to me and sought my counsel beyond the classroom. During these one-to-one sessions with students, I learned that many of them worked to the level that was expected of them rather than to the level of what they were capable of doing. They had more potential than they realized. Helping these students see beyond their current circumscribed existence brought me joy.

My sense of satisfaction in these relationships with students and their positive response to me confirmed for me that I was in the right place. Attaining a degree in counseling, I was prepared to be a helper. I found real congruence between who I imagined myself to be and who I could be in my career as a mental health and career counselor.

Even at this early stage of my journey, my touchstones of FIRE were part of my inner process:

I accepted the situation that I was in (fate).

I believed that I would be led to the right outcome (faith).

I focused on living a life infused with integrity.

I took initiative to get the required credentials to do what I wanted to do.

I was constantly reflecting on circumstances in a manner that I could glean lessons from my experiences.

I always tried to respect those with whom I interacted regardless of age and position.

I applied energy to achieve career goals and to carry out my responsibilities as a spouse and parent.  

I freely expressed empathy for others, and I allowed myself empathy when it seemed that I had lost my way.

My hopeful wish for young professionals is that you will find the path that will lead you to your place of passion and fulfillment in your professional and personal life.

Off to College: Student Imaginings and Creating an Aloha Spirit

I’m 18 and about to go off to college. I think I’m supposed to see this moment as an opportunity to refresh, to become untethered from my life before college. In other words, find my personal identity.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will find a core group of friends who are similar to me in some ways.

What makes me anxious about going to college is that the academics will be more challenging than I might have imagined.

People ask me if I’m excited about starting college. Although I say that I am, I don’t want to have expectations that are too high and be disappointed.

I think it will be an adjustment to have roommates.

Because my parents have taught me well, I’m confident that I will have good judgment about right and wrong.

I can’t wait until I’ve completed my first semester and I’m comfortable in the environment and with my routine.

I think my parents are as anxious as I am because they don’t know how well I will adjust.

I would love it if I can be the best version of myself and college proves to be a positive and inspiring experience.

It may be too much to wish for, but after the isolation of the COVID pandemic, I want my college experience to be an adventure full of fun encounters that I will always remember.


I’m 24, the single mother of a 4-year-old and I’m about to start college. I see starting college as a key and pivotal moment in which my life will finally come into focus.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will discover and develop talents that I never realized I had.

What makes me anxious about going to college are the challenges of doing well in school and being a good mother to my child. I will need to balance my life in a way that I’ve never had to do before. I’ve been successful in working and taking care of my child, but the addition of college courses will test my ability to do it all well. I’m fortunate that my parents are willing to be a back-up for taking care of my 4-year-old’s needs.

People ask if I’m excited about starting college and I tell them that it’s exciting and terrifying in many ways. My greatest fear is that the courses, faculty, and collegiate environment won’t live up to my high expectations. I’m willing to take out the loans and to continue working and doing whatever is necessary to go to college, so I want to know and feel that it is worth it.

I think it will be an adjustment to be in a classroom with students who are just finishing high school and with people much older than me. I don’t fit with either group. Although I’m relatively young, my experiences as a single mother have made me more mature in many ways.

Because my parents have taught me well, I understand that sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to accomplish your goals. I have the resilience to stick to my plan, barring negative circumstances beyond my control.

I can’t wait until I actually have my books and can begin my journey to reach my potential. I feel like I postponed my life by not going to college immediately after high school, and now I have a chance to fulfill my highest goals.

I think my parents believe in me and that makes all the difference. They have always had my back, and that fact gives me confidence that I can succeed.

I would love it if I could accelerate the time to complete my degree requirements and find a group of folks with whom I can develop friendly relationships.

It may be too much to wish for, but I hope that someone such as a mentor or teacher will help me discover what I know is waiting for me and will help me use my education as a perch from which to soar!


Though these future college students are in different stages of their lives, they both are hesitant to allow themselves to feel the true excitement of attending college. Why might this be the case?

Storybook and movie versions of college often depict an environment in which people are interacting and having fun together. Also, in imaginings prior to college, individuals cannot help but feel that this is an opportunity and time when they can be all that they can be.

These expectations can be shattered when in a classroom, residence hall, dining hall, or just walking across campus if they feel as if they are in the wrong place or that they are unexpected visitors. When one feels like this, headphones and text messages are a refuge. The student doesn’t have to look at those who won’t acknowledge them. They don’t have to risk looking at someone who won’t look back. They don’t have to feel the sting of being invisible.

College and university staff, especially in Student Affairs, understand the need for a welcoming campus climate and they provide resources for students to be involved or to get help when needed. However, it takes initiative on the part of the student or someone close to the student to move toward what is available to help students feel as if they belong at this college.

Many students genuinely don’t want to be involved in any prescribed activity. However they do want to be in a warm and friendly environment.

I think colleges and universities with students on campus ought to require everyone to do their part in making the environment welcoming. In short, everyone should contribute to an Aloha Spirit throughout the community.

I’ve seen the idea of creating an aloha environment work. Dr. Doris Ching, a highly respected administrator for years at the University of Hawaii, was president of the NASPA Board of Directors during 1999-2000. Traditionally, the annual conference is the culmination of the term of the board president and a showcase for their leadership. How well the conference was attended and feedback on the quality of the speakers and programs often served as measures of the success. 

Having no control over the conference’s location, which often drives attendance, Dr. Ching decided that the conference marking the end of her term would be one where every person attending would feel more welcomed than they had ever felt at any conference before.

Dr. Ching made it a thing that not just NASPA staff and volunteers, but every single person who attended the conference was given the duty to contribute to the Aloha Spirit. All the nametags had some kind of message such as “Happy You’re Here” or “How can I help you?” Dr. Ching, herself, was the role model, for there simply is no more gracious and welcoming person. She modeled how everyone was to contribute to the spirit of aloha.

In every way possible, Dr. Ching conveyed the message that everyone was responsible for making everyone else feel welcome. People got the message. Although it sometimes seemed that people were self-conscious about their active role in creating this warm and welcoming environment, they wanted to do this because Dr. Ching asked them to.

As we traversed the hallways, it seemed that everyone was smiling, nodding, and in some way greeting others. As we passed one another on escalators, we were waving and smiling as we greeted people. In the conference program spaces, people were introducing themselves to the persons sitting near them. I’d never seen anything like it. I observed and was part of this experiment that proved that an aloha spirit can be created when everyone takes responsibility for making all in the community feel welcome.

At the end of the conference, it didn’t matter how many people had attended. The point Dr. Ching wanted to make was realized. Everyone was an ambassador and felt personally responsible for creating an environment where everyone else could feel that they mattered.

Simple gestures such as looking at someone, perhaps smiling, or saying hello are small acts of kindness when encountering other humans, especially those in your college community.   Speaking and smiling when encountering a fellow human being is not just about manners. It’s all the other things that these gestures represent.

Constant and pervasive messages about everyone’s responsibility to create a positive and welcoming environment is worth a try. I saw it work at a conference where people were only together for a few days.

What effect might it have if the college environment is a mirror that reflects and reinforces the positive self-image that these students have of themselves as they embark on their college careers?

Why

Two weeks ago, Buffalo
Two days ago, Uvalde

??????????????????????

Why are active shooter attacks increasing?
Why does this keep happening?
Why can’t we stop this?
Why do people kill?
Why is enough not enough?

Why do all the questions begin with WHY!

A Very Good Summer

Summer 1999

It was a very good summer. All the stars aligned. Good vibes all around. I recorded specific encounters and activities in my journal and found that most journal entries ended with some acknowledgement of how fortunate I felt to have my family, friends, and colleagues. In retrospect, I wonder if the events are what made it a good time or if my attitude helped me to see the positive in some situations that could have been interpreted differently if I had not been working on a personal challenge.

I challenged myself to be deliberate and intentional in practicing graciousness and respect during encounters, especially when my instinct might be to push back. My challenge to myself was like a New Year’s resolution or a change in behavior that some implement at the beginning of the Lenten season. I wanted to experiment with how I might be able to change my experience by changing the orientation of my mind.    

I determined that I would look for opportunities to honor the basic goodness in others and act without rancor when negativity invaded my space.

I had several opportunities to try out my experiment during the summer of 1999. One   opportunity was during a professional development program being run jointly by my organization and another on a campus in the Northeast. Our team of facilitators was excellent, and I made no journal entry indicating that there was any friction among colleagues.

My opportunity to implement my personal challenge came instead from an encounter with a woman who was working at the cash register in the dining facility of the host college. I noticed that unlike most people who might have an occasional bad day, this person seemed to be having a bad day every day. In my journal notes, I describe her as impatient, unfriendly, and rude. One morning, when this woman’s supervisor (who was always kind and smiling) was near, I praised the worker at the cash register for her patience with us because it had to be frustrating when visitors didn’t know or follow the processes that made everything go smoothly. Within earshot of the supervisor, in a teasing manner, I commented that this worker should receive a bonus for having to put up with us.

A change in attitude was immediate. By lunchtime that same day, the once unfriendly woman appeared to be in a much better mood. On subsequent days, when I was not in her line, she would give me a smile and a nod across the way. On our final morning in the dining hall, my new friend came to the table where colleagues and I were having breakfast to wish all of us a safe trip home. I recorded this episode in my journal because I was so moved by the power of honoring the positive and basic goodness in others especially when the first instinct is to respond in kind.

Family ties were strong. My skills were stretched and appreciated. Travel for my work was exciting. And, when there were mishaps and possibilities for negativity, I harkened back to my challenge and reframed the situation. The summer of 1999 was a very good summer.

Becoming With One Another

Is it too late for us to see one another as good neighbors? Is there anything that will make us honor and value one another?

Optimists used to think that extreme threats would bring people together in harmony and mutual caring. Now they might not be so sure. Since 2019, the entire world has endured a potential life-ending threat and during that time, rather than bringing people closer, the schisms and reasons to separate have become more apparent. The threat itself became a cause for disunity and separation.

Witnessing the failure of a pandemic to make us mortals live together in harmony, one might think that even “the really big one,” such as a catastrophic earthquake, would not make a dent in softening the hard hearts of many people who have staked out their position on every conceivable topic.

A metaphorical earthquake is occurring all around us when voices escalate over ideological conflicts, when citizens arm themselves with lethal weapons, and when states roll back laws protecting civil rights. It’s no wonder that people get drawn in and fixate over TMZ-brand news, reality shows, soap operas, and other distractions that “stream” into our homes.

When I attempt a philosophical perspective on how people treat one another, I come back to a thought I’ve had for many years. That idea is that we are part of each other’s becoming. What I experience from you is only a part of the equation. My reaction to what you initiated completes the formula. Your behavior toward me and how I react determine how both of us are growing into or away from our ability to live as social beings. What if we purposed to become each other’s foil in our quest at becoming? Then our principal role would be to help those we encounter to become the best that they can be.

We’re all works in progress tasked with learning how to value our connections. It’s not too late for us. However, the impetus for honoring and valuing one another is not outside of us. The motivation comes from us. We know what the right thing is. We just have to do it. One person at a time.

KBJ: Portrait of Black Women

The inane and insulting questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee about critical race theory, her sentencing record, transgender women in sports, and on and on were unable to crack the composure of The Honorable Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during the hearings to approve her for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though she maintained judicious silence despite the barrage of questions and statements that impugned her integrity as a judge, I imagine that the hardest minutes and most difficult moments of the hearings were the 19 minutes and 23 seconds of Senator Cory Booker’s emotional and passionate comments about her capabilities and worthiness for the role as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court.

Ketanji Brown Jackson

As I focused on her face, I realized that she was the portrait of all Black women. As she listened to Sen. Booker praise her for her “grit, grace, and extraordinary demeanor,” she kept her composure. It was when the senator began to speak about her family that a light was shone on this portrait of Black women.

Notwithstanding the one time she allowed herself to smile when the senator said something humorous, she held frozen the muscles of her face. She pressed her lips together and folded them inside her mouth as we Black women often do when we want to suppress our voice. However, her clasped hands could not keep her thumbs from agitating one over the other as they smoothed and soothed her skin. My heart broke when uninvited her tears started to roll down her face as she sat unmoving all the while experiencing an earthquake inside her body and mind.  

I don’t know how she will rule as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and I may not agree with all of her opinions, but I agree with Senator Booker that she is “[our] star and harbinger of hope.” She, perhaps more than any other prominent Black woman today, is the embodiment of all of us who put a burden on ourselves to maintain composure in the face of disrespect and efforts to make us feel unworthy and less than.

Compartmentalizing Disrespect

By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.

You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.

Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.

You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.

You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.

During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.

It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.

At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?

Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.

You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As part of my personal motto, represented by the acronym FIRE, I make a habit of reflecting on experiences and what can be learned from them. I have used my journals over the years to do just that in the process of writing. It is my hope that sharing these reflections through this BLOG may have some value for others, but please note that I intend for people who I do not specifically name to remain anonymous to readers. For the record, this blog post is not about NASPA or anyone I worked with at NASPA.

Increasing Capacity to Cope

Monday, September 17, 1996

“The emerging health challenges of the twenty-first century will be novel viruses. We need to begin to build people’s capacity to cope.”

Richard Keeling, MD

(In a NASPA meeting about how to promote HIV/AIDS prevention as an issue of overall health and wellness at colleges and universities.)