Mindsets, Community, and the Power of Empathy
Last October, I had one of those rare moments gifted to faculty members who work with undergraduate students. A sophomore sent me an email, letting me know that she was taking the semester off—a not uncommon decision in the midst of the pandemic. She said she was in her hometown earning money babysitting and working on her songwriting and stage performance skills.
The email included a Facebook link to a web-based talk show. There, she had performed a song she had written titled “It’s On You,” a plainspoken call to end white supremacy. “It’s on you to tear down the walls, that built you up and kept others out, and use those bricks ... to pave a better road,” she sang.
It’s hard for me to express my feelings about the brave yet measured way she expressed her observations, her outrage, and ultimately her hope. As much as I enjoyed hearing a former student sing, I was most gratified to learn that her song was inspired by a course called Civil Discourse, which she had completed at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. For two semesters, I have co-taught this one-credit-hour course, which I helped create.
The class is not intended to create activists, but rather to generate empathy. We want to fundamentally broaden the lens through which our students see the world; we want them to appreciate and learn from different perspectives. I have been surprised by the curiosity, thoughtfulness, and resolve that my songwriting student and many others have shown as they examined the society around them.
5 Aspirational Mindsets
The class came into being in part because of the missional approach to education I developed during my years as a professor of accountancy. I have come to believe that we as faculty could, and should, move students in directions they had not previously considered.
Our hope is to wake in our students the ability to think, feel, and challenge themselves to critically examine important issues in society and in business.
Once I was named the associate dean for undergraduate affairs, I began working with my staff to establish what we call Gies Mindsets. These aspirational principles are designed to complement the academic curriculum and help students connect their academic work to the sweeping changes affecting society and, by extension, the business world. There are five mindsets:
- Empathetic. The ability and desire to understand others, to see through their eyes, and to engage in their success and well-being.
- Professional. The capacity to solve problems and manage collaboration by bringing integrity, maturity, and leadership to real-world settings.
- Innovative. The drive to embrace risk and bring creativity to solutions and new opportunities.
- Global. The desire to gain a broad understanding of diversity in other cultures and countries; the willingness to be open to differing perspectives.
- Purpose-driven. The maturity to take a balanced and holistic approach to life, to show resiliency in the face of setbacks, and to embrace intrinsic rewards.
These five mindsets are the north stars for the Gies College; they underpin and complement all of our programming with intentionality. That’s not to imply that we’re trying to brainwash students into prescribed beliefs. Rather, our hope is to wake in our students the ability to think, feel, and challenge themselves to critically examine important issues in society and in business.
Civil Discourse—the class that inspired the songwriter—was one of the school’s first forays into fostering the Gies Mindsets. Before each class, my co-teacher and I gave students prompts in the form of TED Talks or podcasts that covered controversial topics such as immigration, gun control, gender-neutral bathrooms, the legalization of marijuana, and standardized testing in higher education admissions. When students arrived in class, we facilitated conversations on the various topics, emphasizing that the goal is to learn from holding these conversations, not to win a debate.
Those first conversations were exhilarating, but admittedly we felt a touch of terror about what we might encounter. However, we discovered very quickly that students have an appetite for genuine, authentic, meaningful discourse, and that all of us can learn the most from conversations that are uncomfortable.
Using lessons we learned from the Civil Discourse classes, we undertook a more ambitious attempt at using conversation to foster an empathetic mindset and, ultimately, help students understand the importance of community. With our Community Launch program, which we initiated in the fall of 2020, we developed a platform for small groups of students to engage in regular conversations on their own.
We discovered very quickly that students have an appetite for genuine, authentic, meaningful discourse, and that all of us can learn the most from conversations that are uncomfortable.
The Community Launch program consisted of a network of social groups, each one composed of six or seven students who were diverse in terms of residency, race, involvement in student organizations, and year in school. Over the course of the academic year, they were encouraged to gather biweekly to discuss big, existential ideas. Over the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, we averaged nearly 600 students in the program.
Each student-led community was expected to select a liaison to work with the staff in my office. Groups were also expected to engage in conversations that tackled complex issues—such as defunding the police or defending voting rights—as practice for holding similar difficult discussions in the future.
From the outset, we recognized that those who might need to engage the most might also be the least likely to participate, so we took three steps toward ensuring that the groups were places of openness, empathy, and purpose. First, we gave each group ground rules of communication that emphasized authentic, courteous, and civil conversation. Second, we asked each group to select a representative to complete a brief training module on facilitation and turn-taking. Third, we hired student coaches who each were assigned six to ten groups; they met biweekly with the representatives from their assigned groups to discuss group dynamics and address any conflicts as they arise. These coaches are the heroes of the program!
Our society is facing complex social, political, and economic challenges, and businesses must balance stakeholder expectations for profitability with the requirements of responsible citizenship. I believe that America’s colleges and universities can and should be providing students with intentional and integrated frameworks for confronting tough issues. Students today are hypersensitive to the tumult, but they are far from resigned to it. We owe it to them to channel their calls for change into productive outlets.
When I listen to my songwriting student, I hear an openness, passion, and commitment that gives me great hope for the future of business, the nation, and the world. We may never know how today’s students will bend the arc of history—but judging by what I see, I’m encouraged to believe that they will do it.