Kindness is contagious, and so is the mission of the Roots of Compassion and Kindness, or ROCK, at Florida Gulf Coast University. “Project ROCK,” as it’s also known, promotes compassion, kindness and empathy to FGCU students and the community through education, action and research. Since its launch in 2020, the program has gained momentum, spreading goodwill and smiles at a time when they are needed more than ever.
Project ROCK was born with the help of an anonymous donor who gifted FGCU $70,000 to develop a program to teach empathy and compassion to elementary and middle school children. Maria Loffredo Roca, associate professor and chair of the Department of Integrated Studies, took on developing the program.
“This isn’t a superficial initiative; this is deep,” explained Roca. “You hear people talking about feeling alone or unloved. This work can help counter that. It can create a feeling of community.”
Nestled in the Department of Integrated Studies, ROCK courses are open to all students. Faculty members design lessons about compassion, using insight and research from psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists and scholars.
“There is so much wonderful work being done about the brain. There is science that supports that ROCK’s work can change people in ways that are healthy and help individual mental and community health,” said Roca.
As ROCK continues to grow, so does its team of ROCK stars. Project manager Megan Norcia is nearing her second month at FGCU. She comes to Southwest Florida after spending 16 years at The State University of New York (SUNY) system, where she created courses in children’s and young adult literature, British literature, composition, and career prep for English majors. She is also the recipient of SUNY’s Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in College Teaching.
“What I wanted at this stage in my career was to find an opportunity to have a broader impact. I have two little girls, and I want to help make a better world for them,” said Norcia. “I want to be directly involved with kids like them to spread this message of empathy and make this world kinder, more receptive, more inclusive and more understanding.”
All ROCK classes start with a foundation in self-compassion where students first learn how to love and appreciate themselves. Then they are encouraged to be kind and compassionate to others. But to do that, they must learn to strengthen what Norcia calls their “empathetic muscle” and practice seeing things from another person’s perspective.
“Compassion can be contagious, and that’s what we need right now. It’s a time of high anxiety and people are upset and anxious about their safety. Being compassionate, being kinder to each other, has never been more important.”
Students have the option to apply instruction learned on campus in classrooms throughout the community. ROCK currently partners with four elementary and middle schools in Southwest Florida. Undergraduates working with ROCK lead interactive activities like painting rocks with encouraging statements, planting gardens or journaling. They also lead guided discussions about empathy and compassion. Norcia and Roca hope the program will expand into working with different community groups, such as healthcare workers, retirees and law enforcement.
“It seems these kids are absorbing the lessons at a very young age,” said Norcia. “If you can become a more compassionate, grateful and appreciative person when you’re young, just think about how that would shape your experience with the world going forward.”
Sarah Angel Maurival, an FGCU student majoring in English, is the newest ROCK star. This semester she has the opportunity to work alongside Roca and Norcia as a work-study student assistant. With a passion for art, she helps design kindness buttons for clothing and backpacks.
“I feel like this [program] is going to be big. I have such a good feeling about it, and I am so grateful to be a part of it with art. That’s my way of making a difference,” said Maurival.
Maurival has found a support system in Roca and Norcia. Outside of her regular duties, Sarah encourages other students to look into taking a ROCK class. She believes it helps everyone strengthen their empathetic muscles.
“It’s such a beautiful message. It’s really important to me to be genuine and kind. That is ingrained in me,” said Maurival. “I feel like if everybody at FGCU took this class, FGCU would be completely different in a good way. We are great, but we could be even better!”
ROCK is the first program of its kind in Florida, and those involved hope it will become an official center at FGCU. ROCK will also soon sign the Charter for Compassion and join a list of institutions that have a compassionate action plan in place or are working toward one. Roca says they are also looking for a donor to name the center, ensuring this important work continues.
“This work has changed me. It feels like it’s my legacy. We built a university that’s teaching the world to be a kinder, more loving, more compassionate place,” said Roca.
- Learn more about Project ROCK.