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I was a first-generation college student. I remember calling my mom to talk about the challenges I was facing and her replying, “Don’t worry, you will figure it out” and “You will do fine!” I recall her optimistic but vague statements as intending to support me but not being very helpful. I remember having to learn a new language in college, having to learn the definitions of fancy, jargony words like “syllabus.” I remember wondering why my “classes” were now called “courses” and why my “tests” were now called “exams.”

I simply did not understand much about the culture of college. Thankfully, I did figure a lot of it out (not without stumbling) and did find professors and teaching assistants who listened to my experiences and believed in me. My eventual success was largely a product of their empathy and support.

I reflected on my own experiences while reviewing recent Student Voice survey data on how understood students feel at their colleges. I immediately found a couple of the results from the survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, distressing. Only 14 percent of the undergraduate students strongly agree that their college or university is responsive to the needs of all of its students, with the majority of respondents (55 percent) reporting they neither agree nor disagree (about one out of four), somewhat disagreed (one out of five), or strongly disagreed (about one in 10). Only 28 percent say they have ever shared the challenges they are facing with their professors or other professionals at their institutions.

These responses suggest that many of our students fail to see our colleges and universities as understanding their experiences, and they are uncomfortable sharing those experiences and challenges with those at their institutions who may be able to support and help them. This is dismaying and tragic. The role of our colleges and universities is to promote the personal and professional development of our students and to support their learning and success. I am aware that I would have not succeeded without believing my professors and teaching assistants would be responsive and supportive to the challenges I was experiencing.

I also saw opportunity in these results, too. Among respondents, 44 percent report that the people who they believe understand them best are professors, with another 36 percent choosing academic advisers and additional 17 percent selecting teaching assistants. I suspect these categories of individuals were acknowledged because of their close and frequent contact with students. If we focus professional development efforts on these professionals at colleges and universities, I believe we can more explicitly and more directly connect to and support our students. Again, reflecting on my own experiences, I know that our students need our support.

A couple of years ago, through my university’s Teaching and Learning Center, I was tasked with leading our professional development efforts, in essence, to help college educators teach college students successfully.

Being empathetic is not always easy. It takes work and is emotionally heavy. It takes time to listen to and understand someone else’s perspective. One group of students professors may struggle to empathize with are first-generation college students (like I was). By definition, professors have spent a lot of time in college, while first-generation college students have not.

With that charge, the first event I offered in the professional development series that I designed was on the teaching persona—the crafting of the person you will show yourself as to your students. I wanted to develop an overarching foundation for a teaching persona that would work for teachers with varying personalities, philosophies and academic disciplines to create and lead successful learning environments. I thought through the various characteristics and behaviors that would help create connections to students to support their learning, and I identified five components of that teaching persona.

I advocate that our professors, academic advisers and teaching assistants bring PEACE to their students and classes (especially during times of extreme challenge). Not only does this imply they will create learning environments that are safe, inclusive and welcoming, but “PEACE” is an acronym that guides them in crafting their specific teaching personas. By bringing approach to our classes and our students, we commit to bringing preparation, expertise, authenticity, caring and engagement.

Preparation (having a plan) and expertise (having content knowledge) are necessary but not sufficient for supporting our students’ learning. We must also bring authenticity (establishing a climate of trust and humanity), caring (structuring our courses to be welcoming and inclusive, genuinely caring about our students as people) and engagement (modeling complete investment in the learning experience to increase our students’ own engagement and learning through engaging the sage and via trickle-down engagement). Each of the components of PEACE is a feature of a persona that teachers should work to demonstrate through intentional action during every class meeting and every student interaction.

Central to the caring component is empathy—understanding the perspectives of others. In the teaching context, this would apply to teachers investing in learning about and responding to the individual, unique experiences of their students. I recommend that all college educators work to bring PEACE to their classes through all five components, but the Student Voice survey results suggest empathy is especially needed. We have the opportunity to prioritize our infusion of empathy in our courses (i.e., empathetic course design perspective in our syllabi, course structure and policies, and assignments and assessments) and student interactions to better understand and promote the experiences of our students at our colleges and universities. We can do this as individuals and we may also promote this empathetic perspective to our colleagues in formal (e.g., professional development events) and informal (e.g., conversations about teaching) ways.

Being empathetic is not always easy. It takes work and is emotionally heavy. It takes time to listen to and understand someone else’s perspective. One group of students professors may struggle to empathize with are first-generation college students (like I was). By definition, professors have spent a lot of time in college, while first-generation college students have not. For the former, the college experience is comfortable and familiar. For the latter, the college experience may be overwhelming and scary. This division is a problem.


To help narrow the divide and inspire empathy, I share my experiences as a first-generation college student with other college educators and, more importantly, with my students. I let them know that my experiences influence my perspective, but my students’ experiences also influence my perspective. I tell my peers and my college students that my teaching philosophy is inspired by my goal to support the learning and success of my students (not to be arbitrarily “rigorous”), and then I design my classes using practices that explicitly demonstrate that goal.

These are the conversations I have. These are the conversations we should have often. We should create professional development opportunities to help college educators understand both why it is important, and how, to bring PEACE to their classes and their students. We should make the goal of bringing PEACE to our students one that we pursue intentionally and constantly. If we do this, we can let our students know that we are responsive to their needs and invite them to share those needs with us.

These initially distressing survey responses from Student Voice can inspire us to more intentionally invest in our opportunities to support the personal and professional development of our students by bringing PEACE to our classes.

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