In the golden light of a spring evening at Florida Gulf Coast University, small groups of people slowly stroll together, immersed in conversation. They are sharing deeply personal experiences – what it’s like to raise a child with cerebral palsy and autism, how it feels to be homeless, the impact of seeing your son murdered on your doorstep.
This walk is part of a journey designed to develop empathy and compassion, qualities key to success in all aspects of communication, and difficult to acquire. The exercise, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, is part of a course, “Unbroken: Finding your Inner Strength,” taught by Barbara Fuentes through the Integrated Studies department. Fuentes is also accommodations coordinator in FGCU’s Adaptive Services division, which helps enhance access for students, faculty, staff and guests with disabilities.
In learning to understand the challenges that those around us are going through, kindness and empathy are critical components. Fuentes knows the concept well as she strives to develop these qualities among her students at FGCU. “Dig deep, cultivate and endure,” Fuentes said.
The course is an exploration of the resilience of the human spirit and the will to overcome the most difficult of life’s situations. The class is built around her own life experiences and looking at what makes people find light and love even though they’ve been through extremely hard situations.
According to Fuentes, sharing stories is the quickest way to break down perceived barriers. “We look at someone and we don’t know their story, we’re too quick to make random judgments,” she said. “You could be behind me in line at the grocery store and you’d never know that I’m a widow and the challenges that I’ve endured.”
The course addresses issues of human suffering, especially the difficult topic of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which is one of the textbooks used in the class. Curriculum focuses on the cultural, religious and psychological perspectives of pain and suffering, using historical events and personal accounts of individuals who have not only survived but thrived through these experiences.
Students build their “toolkit” using the resources and discussions in order to process and work through trials in their own lives, and to make necessary changes to enhance personal growth. The goal is for them to adjust and adapt to become more resilient and stronger in the face of unforeseen challenges that lie ahead.
But what exactly is empathy and how do you cultivate it? According to Megan Norcia, project manager of the Roots of Compassion and Kindness (ROCK) program in the Integrated Studies department at FGCU, we all have the capacity to develop empathy.
“Kindness is hands-on, something we can do to show we care,” Norcia said. “Compassion is something that we feel within our heart, a shared suffering, and we want to make it better. Empathy is the prize, the more complex emotion.” Norcia shared that the term is rooted in the German word Einfühlung, meaning “in feeling.”
Fuentes and Norcia envisioned a workshop to build these traits and came together to create a place for unity and connection. The Walk a Mile in My Shoes event on the Library Lawn was structured to build connections through listening and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Bringing the classroom lessons outside, the project encouraged students to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” pairing them with people who have overcome hardship and persevered. The idea was inspired by the Human Library program that began in Denmark and allows you to “check-out” an individual and learn about their story. Students randomly selected someone from a panel of individuals, all with unique stories and unexpected trauma, and embarked on a walk, actively listening to their story.
The “talkers” for the evening included Ruth Rodrigues, Adam James, MaryAnn Kawecki, Keith Goldberg, Alexandra Vachon, Nicole Wilson, Mindy Pittman and Barbara Fuentes, all members of the FGCU community. Each with their own incredible story of resilience and perseverance, they candidly shared how they have become stronger through unexpected challenges. Stories included being the parent of a special-needs son, a man who was homeless, a stroke survivor, a young single mother, a domestic abuse survivor, a mom who witnessed her son’s murder on her doorstep and a widow of nine years.
Students brought blankets and beach chairs and stretched out comfortably on the lawn enjoying the perfect temperature in between the walks, reflecting on their conversations. “This is why I wanted to hold this class out here after the time change,” Fuentes said. “This breeze — the weather could not be more beautiful. Look at this.”
The exercise in perspective and compassion inspired each participant to reflect on their own lives and be thoughtful about what others may be facing, learning that first perceptions are often incorrect. “Everyone has a story, and we never know until we actually listen,” Fuentes said. “But it takes more than that: There must be a mutual willingness to share, to be vulnerable about the tough parts of our stories, because often it’s through commonalities in the challenges that we find the strongest bonds.”
Leading an exercise in meditation and reflection, Norcia guided a listening activity. “We have to have the courage and willingness to listen and be introspective,” she said. “Acknowledge, breathe, always be curious, ask the questions. Think about the cues, verbal and non-verbal. How engaged is your posture?”
Ruth Rodrigues is the director of Emergency Management at FGCU and encounters students daily. But, as Rodrigues took the time to share her personal journey of having a special-needs child and the challenges that she’s overcome, those who walked with her shared their gratitude for her vulnerability and honesty. “Sometimes it’s the things that pierce your heart the most that become the best gifts,” Rodrigues said. “My only son was born with cerebral palsy and autism. It’s been difficult, but the successes in the journey to get him to adulthood – he’s now 20 – have been what keeps me going.”
Communication major Alyssa Burke felt fortunate to learn about Rodrigues and found the compelling nature of her hope and persistence personally inspiring. “Ruth told us about her son and how he is non-verbal, so he couldn’t express when he was in pain,” Burke said. “It really touched something in me as I’ve struggled with not being able to properly communicate my pain over the course of my life.”
Rodrigues chooses to focus on the bright side and small victories. “He’s discovered his own way of doing things, expressing himself,” Rodrigues said. “We’ve learned to understand that and find love in each accomplishment.”
The collected feeling of the class carried similar themes: inspired, motivated, grateful. The students reflected that they were most interested in how the storytellers grew stronger and turned their issues into energy to move forward. Everyone who participated in the evening, the walkers and talkers, shared a feeling of genuine goodwill to partake in such a moving and powerful shared experience.
With a focus on the combination of active listening, kindness and compassion, empathy is certainly the prize. “We are all a sum of our experiences,” Fuentes said. “I love my course. I love the depth and the connections that the conversations inspire.”