George Mason University
A 2010 study from the University of Michigan found college students of the 2000s were less empathetic than college students in the 1980s and ’90s, and a 2022 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health further found college students had less cognitive empathy and increased anxiety and depression as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
George Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being created an initiative in 2021 to encourage students, faculty and staff members to show kindness to one another.
Within Mason Chooses Kindness (MCK), hundreds of community members serve as kindness ambassadors, offering programming to promote exploration and engagement around the theme of kindness and modeling how to treat others with intentional grace.
Why kindness: In 2013, George Mason established well-being as a commitment in its 10-year strategic plan, and the Center for the Advancement for Well-Being leads the initiative, collaborating with stakeholders to create a common theme.
“In early 2020, and not knowing that COVID was around the corner, we chose the theme of kindness,” says Nance Lucas, executive director and chief well-being officer. “Mason Chooses Kindness was intended to be a theme only for the 2020–21 year. Given its success and how much it was resonating with our community members, we decided to continue expanding it over the years.”
The goal of MCK is to “create and sustain a kindness revolution” at the university, according to GMU’s website. Kindness, as defined by the institution, is intentionally engaging in positive action that is friendly, caring and compassionate toward oneself and others.
“We know from the science of well-being that kindness is an antidote to loneliness and depression,” Lucas says. “One of our goals is to increase awareness about the impact of kindness, including ordinary examples like holding the door open for others or [other actions] that require more of us.”
How it works: The initiative has six pillars: education and awareness, positive connections, creativity, courageous advocacy, compassion, and well-being. MCK has two co-chairs who serve on the kindness committee in leading the work.
MCK has three primary means of sharing kindness: a tool kit, community ambassadors and a colleague recognition program.
The MCK Toolkit offers community members resources to learn about the impact of kindness and how they can spread it within the institution, classrooms, workplaces or their personal lives. The tool kit features peer-reviewed articles on kindness and student testimonials on the importance of kindness.
Pats for Patriots is a program that allows campus stakeholders to share recognition with one another through words of affirmation. Community members fill out an online form, providing the nominee’s name, email and department and a short (fewer than 50 words) message. All submissions are shared with the nominee.
“It is a free and easy way outside of formal award/recognition processes to thank, recognize and show appreciation for a Mason colleague or student who has taken the time to do something kind, generous or thoughtful towards others,” says Lewis E. Forrest, II, associate dean of university life.
The recipient gets a physical Mason Chooses Kindness card, sticker and swag if they live or work on campus or an e-card for those living or working off-campus. Since launching, the MCK team has received over 700 nominations for Pats for Patriots.
Kindness ambassador roles: The kindness ambassador program launched in 2021, and the inaugural cohort was made up of 175 faculty, staff and students.
To be an ambassador, a campus community member must be someone who shares compassion toward others, has an enthusiasm for spreading kindness, radiates positivity and joyfulness, and finds joy in helping others, Forrest explains. Each nomination is reviewed the fall of the academic year by the MCK committee, which then extends invitations to those accepted into the process.
Kindness ambassadors are responsible for modeling how to engage with other kindly and spreading awareness of MCK tools, resources and events.
Ambassadors also participate in MCK events and programs throughout the academic year, as schedules allow. Events include sharing free coffee and doughnuts to celebrate World Kindness Day in November, offering a BIPOC Well-Being Week and creating a Month of Kindness calendar.
To become an ambassador, community members are nominated to the MCK team the year prior. There is no formal compensation for ambassadors, but they receive a certificate, swag and education on well-being and kindness—plus opportunities for community engagement and networking.
Scaling up: “What we discovered is that kindness has become a unifying force at Mason, bringing together so many of our students, faculty and staff in programs like the Mason Kindness Ambassadors and Pats for Patriots,” Lucas says. “Unfolding MCK has been like leading a social movement. It’s had a snowball effect—as more people learn about it, they want to be involved.”
MCK has scaled since launching, with 225 ambassadors this academic year, up from 200 in the 2022–23 school year.
Other units have expanded the mission and reach of MCK. The university’s Costello College of Business has its own kindness initiative, the goodwill team, which is responsible for highlighting and encouraging kindness among the college. The college also incorporates kindness and well-being into its professional development courses, BUS 103 and 303.
MCK recently partnered with the university’s free food pantry to create kindness cards for pantry users before the winter break and with Mason Athletics to hold a kindness-themed game to share the mission of MCK.
MCK kindness ambassadors partner with other institutional groups to spread the message of kindness.
George Mason University
“Our hope this that we can sustain the work we are doing, increase the number of kindness ambassadors and others at Mason who wish to be part of MCK,” Forrest says.
Colleges and universities across the nation and higher education groups have visited campus to learn about MCK as a model, as well.
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