Practicing Deep Empathy


Mentoring Those Unlike Ourselves

Years ago I was turned down for a job mentoring college students of color—a real blow, as I believed it was my calling. During the interview, it became clear the program coordinator felt a middle-class white woman could not sufficiently empathize with the experiences of these students, even though my own life experiences and career choices had brought me into regular contact with them. I was disappointed in her lack of imagination, but I also understood she was expressing not only a personal belief but a political commitment to a particular vision of community building in higher education.

These days, as a college history professor, I find myself advising and mentoring college students who, on the surface, look very much like younger versions of me: white, working- or lower-middle-class students aspiring to match or surpass their parents’ quality of life by making thoughtful course choices and planning strategically for their careers. However, as a native Southern Californian who grew up in a gay enclave, graduated from Snoop Dogg’s urban high school, and whose parents belonged to teachers unions, I sometimes have difficulty relating to my Idahoan students. They have been raised in conservative churches (about a third of them are Mormon), steeped in the state’s Tea Party politics, and taught that carrying firearms is a reasonable safety measure.  As for me, I wrote my high school yearbook’s obituary page and have fought to keep guns off Idaho’s college campuses.

As a lifelong pacifist whose family and friendships have offered little cultural context for military service, I was most intimidated by the prospect of working with Idaho’s military veterans. History is a popular major for these students, and just about every class I have taught has enrolled at least one veteran. The vast majority of the veterans in my classes, most of them in their 30s, tell me they volunteered shortly after the attacks on September 11. Others come from families with many unbroken generations of military service. I am expected to mentor these patriotic men (as well as a few women), yet the only language I have that speaks to, or even acknowledges, nationalistic pride is striated with words of resistance to jingoism.

16Complicating matters (thanks in part to many years spent in a cultural studies graduate program), my political allegiances lay with the victims of colonization and military intervention, and in particular with brown and black women and children—with the subaltern. How was I to provide good advice and meaningful mentoring to the patriotic, arms-bearing white men my grad school lens allowed (nay, encouraged) me to vilify?

Meanwhile, my students have been steeped in a local and regional media whose comment sections teem with those blaming liberal Californians for Idaho’s woes. Nationwide, conservative pundits claim higher education is an indoctrination factory run by progressives who pollute the authentic culture of America, as often represented by the ranching, farming, and small-town denizens of the intermountain West.

Of course, outside of my radical cultural studies echo chamber and beyond the stereotypes I had constructed of those who volunteer for military service, reality proved more complicated. Many of my student veterans have told me they experience PTSD because of their tours of duty in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many enlisted not only because they felt a surge of patriotism at the start of the “War on Terror,” but because military recruiters promised them a path out of poverty or the relative subsistence livelihood of the working class.

In theory, my job as a professor and advisor is to help these students and others pick the right courses to help them graduate and find a job. In reality, I spend a lot of time listening, and then trying to provide the stories—parables and cautionary tales—they need to hear. I find myself talking to students about my own journey through depression; my zigzagging through colleges, universities, and career paths; and—with the more fundamentalist and evangelical of my students, veteran or not—my agnosticism and universalism deeply inflected by Quaker teachings.

I confess to them how wrong-headed I was in my understanding of their experiences of military service; how simple-minded I was in my conceptions of soldiers and conservative, gun-owning, white Idahoan men.

We talk about Idaho, its low-wage job market; about politics, Jesus, church; and yes, about the gaping cultural void between us. They say they appreciate that I talk about things other than the past. Unlike some faculty, I do not keep my political commitments vague, and my students express surprise that any liberal could demonstrate an interest in and have such empathy and ever-growing understanding of their culture. I explain that my few years in Idaho have challenged my conception of multiculturalism: that I now understand championing diversity means inviting representatives of the dominant culture—no matter how averse I am to some of its tenets—into my big tent.

I spend more time than I ever imagined helping them discern how their values now might be different from those with which they grew up, and how that shift impacts their calling. They are often unsure how to chart their own paths or seek unconventional solutions to their challenges inside and outside of class. One veteran explained to me that if an officer had told him to break through a wall with his head, he’d have to keep pounding, no matter how bloody his forehead became; he never would have looked for a door or a window. I serve often, behind a half-closed door, as a one-woman clearness committee before connecting them with my own networks of professionals in higher education, the nonprofit world, and the field of informal learning.

In graduate school, I observed that finding a mentor meant approaching the professor whose work one most admired and whose professional life one would most like to emulate. More often than not, this mentoring relationship becomes formalized through teaching or research assistantships, and through credits earned from this faculty member while dissertating. Now, as a mentor, I realize mentoring is about ensuring students learn from my mistakes, my successes, and my life experiences—not so that I can make them more like me, but so that I can help them become people who engage thoughtfully with their own and other cultures, in school and after graduation.

Accordingly, I evince my own values without pressuring my students to adopt those same values. I model empathic listening to help them value and further develop their own empathy. I show genuine curiosity about who they are as people and who they want to become. I use phrases like “I used to believe . . .” and “but then I learned . . .” to demonstrate even professors engage in lifelong learning, that my knowledge and understanding of the world is far from fixed or objective.

As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “identity is a moving intersection of the inner and outer forces that make me who I am, converging in the irreducible mystery of being human.” I remind them of the cultural, political, and biological forces that buffet us, and show them that a dynamic identity can be a healthy one. Particularly when mentoring veterans, I remind them of their humanness, of their irreducible mystery, of the light within. I show them what we have in common, and reveal that when they live thoughtfully and kindly, despite not sharing my particular set of values, they teach me as much as I teach them.

In the end, to my great surprise, I have found just as many shared values as I have found divergent ones. Again and again, I am disabused of my old notion that student veterans remain the patriotic, conflict-seeking people they were when they enlisted at age 18 or 20. I am reminded that their wartime experiences change them in ways they never expected. My students most interested in creating and sustaining cultural diversity, and least interested in suppressing LGBT rights, are student veterans who have served in conflict zones overseas. One, for example, has become fascinated by Middle Eastern Islamic culture, is learning Arabic, and wants to go to grad school to study Islamic history. When I first taught women’s history, a majority of the men in the class were veterans, and they were enthusiastic participants.

When I set out to become a professor, I imagined myself working with ethnically diverse, first-generation college students in California who came of age in a progressive environment. Instead, I teach, advise, and mentor overwhelmingly white, first-generation college students whose religion and politics are foreign to me. It has not always been easy for me to accept students who have made very different life choices from my own, or who express repugnant views in my classroom or my office.

Quaker spirituality has sustained me on my journey so that I not only tolerate my veteran students but come to understand them, care about them deeply, and help them flourish. The vast majority of my students and mentees have never heard of Friends, and yet the Quaker values of tolerance and openness, and the Quaker practices of empathy, listening, and discernment have led us to see and honor one another’s Light. When I observe my students applying these practices in the classroom, I know they, too, will one day prove excellent mentors themselves.


Leslie Madsen-Brooks

Leslie Madsen-Brooks is a history professor, digital humanist, and expatriate Californian currently living in Boise, Idaho. Her work explores how laypeople understand the past and “do history” in the digital age. Her teaching is deeply inflected by Quaker principles.

1 thought on “Practicing Deep Empathy

  1. This article was so interesting to me, Leslie. I grew up as a Mormon in predominately Mormon areas with a father who was an Army veteran and an extended family of gun owners and users. My struggle is the opposite of yours! While I intellectually and in my heart support pacifism, non-violence and peace, those ideals are constantly battling with the beliefs instilled in me early on.

    “One veteran explained to me that if an officer had told him to break through a wall with his head, he’d have to keep pounding, no matter how bloody his forehead became; he never would have looked for a door or a window.” This is so typical of both Mormon culture (“blind obedience is better than disobedience”) and military culture. I can relate so well to your students. Like them, I am now working to follow my own path on my own map.

    The thought I come away with is this: “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” These are not the people you first wanted to mentor, but perhaps you are right where you are most needed.

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