A Lesson in Empathy: Students Learn Emotional Intelligence through Hospice Work

According to social research by the University of Michigan Institute, today’s college students have hit an all time low in empathy and compassion.  Bullying is on the rise from grade school through high school. Some experts believe it’s because students are plugged in for too many hours, while others are pointing their fingers at a bad economy,  competitive workforce expectations, and parents who may be without savings, jobs or a certain future.

Students at The Harley School, a private school in Brighton, are learning about social and emotional intelligence through hospice work and they are getting a perspective on what they used to perceive as their problems.  Hospice provides in-home and institutional care in the final two months of life for cancer and terminally ill patients and families.  There is nothing like death and dying to put self-centered and narcissistic behavior to the test. The 500 Harley students from nursery to twelfth grade are learning compassion, listening, and social outreach skills for college, career, and life by doing things like comforting the elderly on their death beds, according to the article Harley School gives an education in empathy.

Like these students at Harley, when  I was between my junior and senior year of high school, I volunteered all summer at the Hillhaven Hospice in Tucson, Arizona.  At the time, I wanted to be a nurse and with the encouragement of my counselor, I signed up for the summer volunteer program.  I was scared.  No one in my family had died and my three grandparents  were all in their nineties at the time.  I attended a six week class on death and dying and then my classmates and I were ready to “be of service.”  What I observed that summer is that, even in their last few months of life, people are expressing themselves uniquely and purposefully by pursuing what gives them joy.  That equation is as different as our DNA. While I decided not to go into nursing, the people I worked with who were hospice patients that summer changed my life.  They showed me my life’s purpose and they showed me what it meant to connect on the deepest emotional level possible in the face of eminent death.

The head of the school at Harley, Tim Cottrell said, “It has become broadly accepted that empathetic skills, in particular, underlie the success we experience in the relationship-based interactions that permeate professional and personal life.” The school is working on spreading their program through schools across the country by opening a Center for Service for Empathy Education that will train educators on how they can start a similar program at their school.  Like these students, I was blessed to have been able to work with the brave patients at hospice and pull within myself that summer something you can’t learn in any class—self-direction, purpose and the knowledge that being with others in the most critical moments matter.  That, perhaps, is the greatest gift of knowledge that young people can be given—interpersonal courage to face any challenge that  life, or death, may offer.



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