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Engagement in students

Two years ago, I submitted a piece for this publication discussing apathy among students at Concordia.  At that time I felt that students at our school were uninvolved, uninterested, and lacked a real commitment in becoming responsibly engaged.

Now, as a senior, I have been exposed to a new perspective, both from my own experiences, but also by learning from others.  While I don’t necessarily believe Concordia is as bad as I made it out to be, I do accept that as students at an institute of higher education, we owe it to ourselves to continue learning, inquiring and becoming engaged citizens.

Unlike receiving a diploma at graduation, there is no litmus test to determine whether we have become critical thinkers, inquirers, and globally engaged citizens.  It takes more than just going to class to gain these traits.

Much of what is required is intangible and varies from person to person, but I believe understanding and being aware of other’s backgrounds and ideals is the right starting place.  While empathy is generally associated with feelings of compassion, it really applies to many facets of the so-called human condition.

It can be easy to confuse empathy and sympathy.  The distinction is critical though.  Sympathy is a nice way of saying sorry about a situation.  Politicians are very good at sympathizing.  In contrast, empathy is about taking the time and effort to consider and understand the situation of someone else.

I believe one of the key elements of a liberal arts education is being exposed to new ideas and gaining perspective from those ideas.  As students of the humanities, we are continually made aware of issues and ideas that often challenge our own worldview.  Through discussion in class, and hopefully outside of class too, we listen, contest and learn from these ideas and the people that represent them.  It often seems easier to conclude that our own mindset is correct, especially in regards to sensitive issues, but this attitude leaves us as ignorant inquirers unwilling to learn.

We are entitled to our opinions and ideas, but we need to remember that our opponents, like ourselves, are not our ideas.  Everyone has a different background and life experience that we should take the time to consider.  In class if someone says something with which you disagree, take the time to think about what experiences he had that shaped they way he thinks.  And if you’re feeling extra ambitious, strike up a conversation; you might learn something.

Through empathy, we not only learn from and understand those different from us, but also about those similar to us as well.  Oftentimes I think about how individuals perceive each other’s actions.  We are projections of our personalities, but our personalities are the culmination of our entire life experience.  I doubt anyone on campus, even those engaged couples, knows someone so well that they are unable to learn from him or her.

The point is that there is so much to our peers that we are never exposed to.  Everyone has different life experiences that shape their values, morals and perspectives.  We are allowed and encouraged to disagree with others to stimulate conversation and learning, but it should never be disrespectful or demeaning.

At the beginning of my piece, I talked about the importance of learning, inquiring and becoming engaged.  For better or worse, we will one day be a part of the so-called real world.  There, individuals who think and act quite differently from what we have experienced at college will surround us.

We are all at Concordia for different reasons, but the goal of this institution remains simple and straightforward: to send forth responsibly engaged men and women.  Beyond our academic commitments, being empathetic toward our peers and global neighbors will not only fulfill Concordia’s mission for students, but also a commitment to each other.

This letter to the editor was submitted by Ryan Mahon, Concordia 2013.

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