Empathy in College Essay Writing

El Myers (’23) reflects on getting tutored for a college essay and how Skyline writing center approaches this vulnerable writing situation. Skyline writing center tutors are “…trained in empathic tutoring policies, and undoing the power dynamic between tutor and tutee is one that we take with great caution and sensitivity.”

 In my opinion there is 4 big reasons why building empathy in tutoring is important: 

  1. Builds trust: When tutors show empathy, students feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their concerns, fears and challenges. This builds trust between the tutor and student, which is critical for effective learning. 
  1. Enhances communication: Empathy helps tutors to understand their students’ perspectives, which in turn helps them to communicate more effectively. Tutors who are empathetic can explain concepts in a way that resonates with students’ understanding, leading to better engagement.
  1. Fosters motivation: When students feel understood and valued, they are more likely to be motivated to learn. Tutors who show empathy can help students to stay motivated by acknowledging their efforts, celebrating their successes, and providing support when challenges arise.
  1. Promotes learning: Empathy enables tutors to tailor their teaching approach to each student’s unique needs, which promotes learning over telling. Tutors who are empathetic can identify areas where students may need more support and provide targeted guidance and feedback. 

In September of my senior year I brought what I considered to be my “final draft” of my college essay to the admissions counselor at the CUBE at Skyline and had an extraordinarily distressing experience: my paper was brutalized. My ideas were deconstructed with a red pen. When I questioned the counselor on why they thought my personal essay about connecting my physical expression to my gender identity was “not good” and their response was, 

“Your identity is not ideal for a college admissions officer. You seem confused about your gender identity, this is not optimal.” 

I was left speechless. After I left the CUBE I closed the tab to my personal essay that I loved and I did not look at it again for 2 months. 

2 months. 

When I came back to this essay I made some changes on my own terms and brought it to a few friends I had in the Skyline writing center. It was there that I was lifted up and told that the writing I accomplished was delightful and that the story I was telling is one that must be told with pride. 

As I submitted this writing to various colleges and showed it to my trusted teachers and friends I thought more about the interaction I had with the CUBE and I had one thought: what if this happened to someone else? I have been trained through the writing center since my freshman year and I was actively teaching lessons on tutor etiquette as a writing center leader; even still I was so distraught by this interaction that I had to stop writing for two months. What would have happened to a writer with less writing confidence than I? Someone who hadn’t been trained in writing justice and vulnerability? What could’ve happened to an incredible piece of work? 

I believe wholeheartedly that the CUBE and the writing center both need to exist within Skyline and I am well aware that the focuses of each are individual and different. However, if the CUBES mandate is to help students who are college bound, particularly in personal writing formats, that is what the writing center specializes in. We are trained in empathic tutoring policies, and undoing the power dynamic between tutor and tutee is one that we take with great caution and sensitivity. No writer should ever be told that their identity is “invalid” and “not suitable for college purposes” under any circumstances. The CUBE and the writing center must collaborate to undo the dichotomy of being above and below one another and work together so all students are tutored fairly and justly.

Working in the Restaurant Industry Teaches Empathy and Responsibility

Bella Simonte (’23) writes about how the lessons learned from a job in the service industry go far beyond simply dealing with difficult customers. Things that, “if everyone learned, we’d live in a much more harmonious and compassionate world.”

I have been fortunate enough to grow up in the bubble that is Ann Arbor. Aside from Detroit, Ann Arbor is one of the more diverse cities in Michigan in terms of culture, race, economics, and political beliefs. Being a college town, Ann Arbor has access to many different ideologies and people who come from all over the world to indulge in the University of Michigan’s facilities; they come to grow their perception of the world. Though Ann Arbor is more diverse than other areas in Michigan, I still grew up in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood going to predominantly white, middle-upper class schools, developing an inherent ignorance of the world’s atrocities. That is, until I started working in the service industry. 

I’m currently a hostess at Mani Osteria, a fine dining Italian restaurant in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor. As my first job, I didn’t know what to expect going into it. I thought I’d simply be walking people to their tables and dealing with the occasional irritated guest. I didn’t expect to learn how to read people by a simple shift in their body or assert an authority I didn’t know I had. Even just working for a year and a half has taught me a lot. Things that I think if everyone learned, we’d live in a much more harmonious and compassionate world. 

Understanding the divide between wealthy and customer service workers: Coming from an upper middle class family, I didn’t expect any kind of divide between me and the guests I was serving. I assumed we were equals, only I was welcoming them into the restaurant and they were the ones partaking. I still don’t know if it was naive or optimistic to think. Nevertheless, I quickly understood that even if I didn’t see it, guests definitely saw a giant wall separating me and them; they were there to enjoy time with family or friends, and I was the one to service them. I’ve been bribed and guilted into giving guests what they want. They assume money is the only thing that matters to a person making minimum wage, therefore being an effective tool to manipulate them with. I could smile, joke, or empathize with a guest all I want, but the only way they think to get my attention is by paying for it. 

I’ve always been an introverted, independent worker. I believe if I want something done right, I have to do it myself. I intended for hosting to be an outlet of control for me, being the only person at the stand who dictates who gets sat where and to which server, the entire balance of the restaurant resting in my hands. I was sorely mistaken when I had to communicate five birthdays, two shellfish allergies, and a wheel chair lift to four different servers and managers on my first day. I was in for a rude awakening that working in a restaurant is a collaborative effort. However, I chose to ignore it, sticking to my firm beliefs that I can handle whatever problem I get myself into. When I went over on a guest, I would barricade them by the door so there was little chance of my managers finding out how unhappy they were. It wasn’t until I went thirty minutes over on a guest, sitting two employees before them, did they yell at me in front of my manager and I was forced into changing my ways. It took some getting used to and new skills in future telling, but I learned to not be afraid to admit when I mess up and ask for help. The more hands on a problem the more chances there are of fixing it, and the more burden to be spread evenly rather than just on me. 

As Anthony Bourdain once said, “You can always tell when a person has worked in a restaurant. There’s an empathy that can only be cultivated by those who’ve stood between a hungry mouth and a $28 pork chop, a special understanding of the way a bunch of motley misfits can be a family.”

Unbreakable bonds

Lucius Webster (’23) reflects on unique relationship of single mothers and sons. “Sons of single mothers often have a deep understanding of women’s struggles, and they develop a strong sense of empathy and compassion towards them.”

The relationship between a single mother and her son is a unique and special bond that is built on love, trust, and mutual support. Being a single mom is not an easy task, but the bond between a mother and her son can make it an incredibly rewarding experience. In this essay, we will explore the dynamics of the relationship between a single mom and her son and how it can shape the lives of both.

The relationship between a single mother and her son is different from that between a mother and daughter or a father and son. The mother-son bond is characterized by a deep emotional connection, a sense of protectiveness, and a strong desire to nurture and guide the child. For a single mother, her son becomes her world, her primary source of love and companionship, and her partner in navigating the challenges of life. From a young age, a son looks up to his mother as a role model and a source of guidance. He learns about the world and relationships from his mother, who serves as a primary caregiver, teacher, and friend. A single mother is often the sole source of emotional and financial support for her son, and this can create a unique dynamic in the relationship. The son may feel a sense of responsibility to protect and care for his mother, and this can shape his character in significant ways.

As the son grows up, the relationship between him and his mother evolves. He becomes more independent and starts to form his own identity. However, the bond between a single mother and her son remains strong and unbreakable. The son may continue to seek his mother’s guidance and support throughout his life, and the mother remains a constant source of love and encouragement.

One of the most significant benefits of the relationship between a single mother and her son is the sense of emotional closeness that it fosters. Sons of single mothers often have a deep understanding of women’s struggles, and they develop a strong sense of empathy and compassion towards them. They also tend to have a high level of emotional intelligence, which makes them better partners and fathers in their own relationships.

The relationship between a single mother and her son is a unique and powerful bond that can shape both their lives in profound ways. It is characterized by love, trust, and mutual support, and it can help both the mother and son navigate the challenges of life. A single mother’s son is her world, and the bond between them is unbreakable.

I have a disability

Ava Dawson (’24) writes about her personal experience with disability and the impacts on identity. “I now know disability is not a weakness because living with one takes incredible strength.”

Up until a couple of years ago, I never viewed myself as being disabled; although my condition had its implications and hindrances on my life, I never thought of it in that light. I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 9 years old and have had to learn how to cope with and grow with the disease. To begin, a quick explanation: Type 1 diabetes is commonly diagnosed during juvenile years (hence why it was previously known as juvenile diabetes). It develops when the beta cells of an individual–for unknown reasons–begin attacking one’s pancreas, an organ that produces a hormone called insulin. Without this insulin, the amount of sugar in one’s blood is not properly regulated; If left untreated, it leads to death. Before the discovery of insulin in the 1920s, Type 1 diabetes was a terminal disease. 

I rely on insulin to keep me alive each and every day, something I hadn’t really thought twice about until a couple of years ago. I came across an article by a young woman named Lauren Salko, a professional skier and Type 1 diabetic. This is what changed my perspective. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is, “A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or a person who has a history or record of such an impairment.” Every day I rely on an extrinsic insulin source–an insulin pump–to convert the glucose I consume into usable energy because my pancreas no longer functions as it should. In 2008, the ADA Amendments Act included Type 1 diabetes as a disability–it protects Type 1 diabetics in public schools or other publicly sanctioned places which provide them with a 504 or other needed accommodations. 

While on paper the definition is clear, society views disability by a single, unmalleable standard. I’ve had some say to me they hope I don’t view my condition as a disability: it wasn’t until afterwards that I saw the flaw with this statement. I don’t “view” my condition as being a disability, it is a disability. That’s just the reality of it. 

People mean one of two things when they say this: that my condition is not a “real” disability, or that while they acknowledge I have a disability, their hope is that it doesn’t limit my goals or aspirations. Many able-bodied people think disability must contain a physical aspect that is obvious, such as a wheelchair or an amputated limb. This couldn’t be further from the truth, disabilities are diverse; my condition, though not obvious, impacts my life constantly. It’s with me every time I eat, and often when I haven’t– keeping my blood sugar in range is an incessant task. I must constantly contend with my condition. However, it doesn’t limit my goals or aspirations in any way. For the most part, disabled people choose to overcome their condition in order to live how they want to live. 

I myself was shocked and somewhat confused to find that I logistically had a disability. I didn’t fit the stereotypes. I don’t need a handicapped parking spot, or to use an elevator to be mobile around my school. Notably, I don’t let Type 1 limit me. Too often, people see disability as analogous with hopelessness and despair when, really, one of the best things is seeing yourself overcome the challenges. For me, that means being able to go on a 5 mile hike in the Smoky Mountains without getting a low blood sugar, biking 15 miles on a hot summer’s day–chugging apple juice to keep myself conscious, or going out to dinner with friends and guessing the carb count, knowing that I can fix it later. 

I too fell into the trap of stereotypical thinking about disabilities, and it made it harder to recognize my own condition as a disability. I now know disability is not a weakness because living with one takes incredible strength. 

The Diversity of “Funds of Knowledge”

Charlotte Perry (’23) reflects on an important Skyline Writing Center value: funds of knowledge. “But the part of it that I think a lot of students don’t consider when they first join the Writing Center is that your fund of knowledge can be your people skills, ability to make people laugh/feel comfortable, and being able to rephrase questions.”

When I first joined the Writing Center one of the biggest things that stood out and kind of made me nervous was the whole “we welcome all funds of knowledge” thing. I remember thinking “oh no,I’m not very good at punctuation” blah blah self criticism blah blah. But that’s not what “funds of knowledge” actually means; sure it can mean you are skilled in punctuation and grammar or analytical writing etc. But the part of it that I think a lot of students don’t consider when they first join the Writing Center is that your fund of knowledge can be your people skills, ability to make people laugh/feel comfortable, and being able to rephrase questions. Those are all very important funds of knowledge that don’t necessarily have anything to do with academics but traits like those make great tutors when they are taught that those traits are something to be proud of. 

I used to feel pretty insecure about my tutoring abilities because I felt I wasn’t “qualified enough” to be a tutor at times; before I realized that not only is it perfectly okay to ask for help from other tutors and be vulnerable and say “I’m still learning how to tutor assignments like this” and that in itself is another form of….a fund of knowledge! Advocating for yourself and others is a skill that isn’t inherent for everyone. Everyone in the Writing Center and who comes into the Writing Center are all works in progress. We’re all still learning and no one is perfect and no tutor is going to have all the answers. 

Growth mindset. Shared vulnerability. Funds of knowledge. Community collaboration. That is the Skyline Writing Center.