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Can We Help Our College Students Be More Empathetic?Marybeth Bock, MPH
With the stress of balancing classes and clubs, schoolwork and working from home, and trying to unplug while also plugging in to today’s current events, we students have plenty to worry about.
But when we let ourselves get caught up in the chaotic aspects of our lives (all too easy now as we live through a global pandemic, a historic election season, and midterm exams on top of that!), we can neglect to spend time on the things and people that ground us the most.
It doesn’t help that video calls, which used to be reserved for refreshing, low-stakes conversations, are now synonymous with drudgery (Zoom fatigue is a real thing!). Plus our social lives are complicated by the fact that some loved ones seem farther away than ever, with restrictions in place and travel reserved for necessity.
Despite how overwhelming things can appear, the moments we feel we have the least time and bandwidth to reach out are often also the moments when we most need to feel supported.
If you think your student may be struggling to figure out how or when they can reach out within an already swamped schedule, here are a few ideas I’ve discovered that help me to connect with family and friends in an energizing, intentional and manageable way. I hope you'll share them!
If a sibling or friend and I are both swamped with work, it can be daunting to devote a chunk of precious time to casual conversation, however enjoyable. When I find myself in this situation and my twin brother is in the same boat, we sometimes set up a FaceTime where we just work, without talking.
He could be working on chemistry homework while I edit an essay analyzing communication theories but, however disparate our individual assignments are, having the company of someone I love is enough to give me a sense of comfort and renewed motivation to complete my work so he can do the same.
As simple a gesture as it is, being able to see that someone else is experiencing what you’re going through can be its own form of camaraderie and commiseration. As a bonus, you have someone holding you accountable to actually get things done.
Sometimes telling someone I love about everything I’m dealing with is enough to relieve some of the pressure, even if it doesn’t change the situation. Having someone fully in the loop to check up on me and affirm my frustrations can be comforting in itself.
I go to a different university from my two high school best friends, but we have a group text where we can vent to each other about schoolwork. It’s just one more way of staying involved in each other's lives and alhough we’re in different places geographically, we all know what it’s like to be stretched thin in college, with back-to-back exams and a mountain of material to review.
When I tell my friends what’s going on, I have two people in my corner who will tell me it’s valid to feel anxious and overextended. Venting is cathartic — it helps me let go of some of the emotion so I can power through the task at hand with more peace of mind.
Texting is the go-to means of communicating nowadays, but it can be difficult to wait a long time for a response. On the other hand, when I'm sitting on a pile of unanswered texts it can turn responding to loved ones into another item on a checklist — one more thing to feel guilty about.
What I’ve found to work especially well is taking a free moment to make a spontaneous call. In my experience, if a friend is free, they’ll be pleasantly surprised to hear your voice, and if they can't pick up your call, a voicemail will still make their day.
On top of that, talking on the phone gives your eyes and hands a break from screens and keyboards and infuses your conversation with a simple, thoughtful change of pace.
Personally, time zone differences and lack of downtime usually complicate getting in touch with my family when I’m away at school, but the fact that it takes a little more time and effort to call my parents makes it that much more meaningful to them when I do phone home. Even if it’s not a special occasion, a phone call where my parents and I can speak to each other directly makes them feel more involved in my life at school and centers me in the comforting normalcy of family life.
When I found out you can send a domestic postcard for as little as 35 cents, it was a game changer! If I can’t be with a loved one in person and texting feels like switching on autopilot, I’ve started sending notes through the mail. Waiting for a note back is something to look forward to, and you can also hang a hand-written letter on the wall, which is what I do when I need a reminder that someone believes in me.
My college friends, now scattered across the country for virtual learning, are my main recipients, and I do my best to send letters all over — from Fairfax to Fresno — to let them know I care about them wherever they are. However casual or extensive, the notes I receive make me feel like my friends are thinking about me, even though we can’t be together on campus.
Though it takes much more patience to wait for a postcard than a text message, when I see that someone has set aside some time in their busy schedule to write, stamp and send me a letter, I'm touched by how meaningful a piece of mail can be.
When I need a boost, sometimes the most effective thing I can do is to say so. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you’re nervous, and the people you’re close with are the people who should be ready and eager to remind you of how much you rock.
My oldest sibling is the person I go to when I’m concerned about anything from social problems to academic presentations. We believe in each other completely, so I know I can ask them why they think I’m qualified to figure things out or give an awesome speech when I can’t locate the reasons myself. We all find that sometimes our doubts and anxieties cloud our perception of our own abilities and for me, a pep talk can make all the difference in the world. In my experience, loved ones are often able to see the situation much more objectively, and hearing it from someone else can remind you: you got this.
I like to think that the time we invest in our relationships is not wasted. I used to feel that two hours to catch up with old friends was just two hours I couldn’t afford to take away from classwork, but when I insisted on working without a break, more times than not I’d just burn out faster.
Now I’m practicing viewing that time as what I believe it really is — an investment in my wellbeing — and I come back to assignments refreshed and refocused. Plus, the amount my quality of work improves once I’ve been rejuvenated by connecting with loved ones usually makes up for whatever time I needed to use for the break in the first place.
At the end of the day, whether you have a paper to write or a pitch to tackle, in my opinion it’s never a bad idea to remind yourself that you have your own fan section rooting for you. Or better yet, let your fan section remind you themselves (I bet they’ll do so with great pleasure!).
These are just some suggestions that help me combat loneliness, and whether or not they all work for your student, I hope they'll try out their own creative ways of staying in touch with the people they care about. It’s not easy with so much of our lives now socially distanced, but little gestures can make a big difference for relationships — and for your student's happiness in college, which they deserve to prioritize!