Setting Boundaries as an Empathic Professor (Chronicle Vitae)

It had been a while since I’d felt emotionally overwhelmed by a student. In nearly a decade of teaching, I had heard every story imaginable and had gotten really good at responding to student needs while keeping my distance. But this student’s story was compelling.

At first, her eyes were blank as she sat in my office and listened to me explain the significant improvements she needed to make in her papers in order to pass my course. Then something shifted. I felt it. She came clean: She could barely read. Trying to read a 15-page article was a considerable challenge — one that took her hours to accomplish. She also worked full-time but didn’t make much money; some days she came to campus hungry because she wanted to make sure her daughter ate first. And she had contracted HIV the year before. So her absences in class were often related to health issues made difficult by having no health insurance. She supported that with documentation from her doctor.


For the first time in a long while, I was floored. When she left my office with the little bit of hope I could offer her (a make-up assignment), I couldn’t hold back my emotions. I’d completely absorbed her pain to the extent that I went home and cried long and hard for her.



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