A little empathy can go a long way

A student stopped me today on my way back from lunch. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him at first. Then I recalled that he had appeared at my office door last year, out of the blue. He had been a student in my large Biol 1510 class – one of over 200 students. But not that semester; some previous semester, and he had never come to my office before or ever spoken to me. So he was not one of my current students, and I learned that he was not even a Biology major – he was a bioengineering student. He was desperately seeking help and advice, and he must have thought that I was at least approachable. And my office door was open.

He was an international student in danger of failing out of school. He was messing up in his undergraduate research. I pulled up his academic transcript and his grades were all over the place.  We talked. I asked him what he really liked doing, about his dreams for his future. He was clearly extremely bright, but I thought I could see signs of ADHD. I gave him some words of encouragement: I mentioned Steve Jobs as someone who had similar interests and talents. I urged him to seek counseling and get tested, and advised him to consider a change of majors to better suit his true interests. I also invited him back to talk at any time.

I did not see him again until today, on my way back from lunch. He told me he took my words of encouragement to heart – he told his parents that I compared him to Steve Jobs and they were impressed. He got diagnosed and on medication. He was booted from his undergraduate research lab, but he changed majors and he is now doing very well, and he’s happy.

I spent less than an hour with him. I can’t claim that I mentored him – that takes much more time and a deeper relationship. I had an open door and showed him some empathy. And that was just enough, apparently, for him to take action and get his life back on track.

Today is a day I celebrate an unexpected and hitherto unknown victory.

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About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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