Open Doors, Open Hearts: Creating Empathy

Ranjan Adiga,Flag of Nepal a professor from Nepal teaching at Westminster College in Utah recently published a disturbing article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the apathy of his students the morning following news of  the devastating earthquake in his home country. He called for Americans to develop empathy and to “think like non Americans.”  Characterizing all Americans as apathetic may have been a little broad brush for some readers judging from the comments, but it was hard to blame him after the extraordinary experience of having one student shrug off the disaster while he was worried about his family. Intrigued by this story I googled to see if any of Professor Adiga’s students or the college administration had written any messages of sympathy. I did not find any but I did happen upon a student newspaper from Westminster College in Missouri with the headline, “Nepal Earthquake Hits Home” in which the outpouring of sympathy for Nepalese students was clear.  It appears that Professor Adiga was teaching in the wrong Westminster.

He noted that his campus subscribes fully to the philosophy of “global consciousness” and his presence would seem to confirm their intentions.  His dismay was more pronounced in that Westminster students do go on “educational trips” abroad.”  In my experience you can tell very quickly which American students have a natural sympathy for the “international other” and which do not. I think that Professor Adiga simply had the bad luck to be with students who are lacking in empathy beyond the world they know. However, enhanced empathy can be easily acquired when a student has non American college friends or when they live in another country –  for an adequate period of time. I do not think educational trips quite cut it.

Short term study trips are important in exposing students to another society but for real empathy you need immersion and that does not happen in a few weeks. In my early years in London I was struck that every British person who volunteered to help me after noticing me with my map book told me they had lived abroad and often in the US. “I know what it is like to be a foreigner” one woman told me as she cheerfully sent me off in the proper direction.

American students have different study abroad goals from many international students in the US. International students generally come to the United States for an educational experience but the majority of  Americans who study abroad do so in order to change the setting or to find out more about themselves. In the end, it does not matter very much why they venture abroad as long as by the time they return home they have developed a secondary identity as part of their new culture.  This is easier for international students spending two to four years at their US institutions than it is for Americans 60% of whom spend eight weeks or less studying abroad. Only 3% of US students study abroad for an academic year.

If educators really wish to imbue American students with a global perspective we need to promote longer term study abroad programs. If we want to open minds, 6 weeks to a term will do. If we want to open hearts, most people need more time.