Empathy and Understanding Beyond the Classroom

The person who nominated you really spoke to your style of teaching, can you tell me a significant experience that affected the way you approach teaching today?

College was perhaps the hardest four-and-a-half years of my life and so as I went through that experience, often left wondering why it was that difficult, I realized that I did not have an appreciation for how the education would affect me after graduation. Perhaps more importantly, I did not have the support that I needed to evolve both as a professional and as an individual. Now, as a teacher, I take that perspective with me everytime I walk into a classroom because I need to know that you, as students, understand the value that this education will have in your life after William & Mary. It’s not enough for you to understand formulas and frameworks. It’s more important for you to understand the value of those formulas and frameworks, and see how you can use them to change the world in a manner that you believe will make a difference, not just simply in the manner that I believe will make a difference. So I think that’s an important part of my teaching experience. It really is about the students finding their own voice.

So why do you say your college experience was the hardest four years of your life?

I was the first woman to attend college in my family and I attended a college that I could simply afford and, in retrospect, one that was not quite right for me.  So it was difficult; it was difficult from an emotional perspective, a mental perspective, and educational perspective. My first year of college, I had the typical transition challenges and then my friend who lived next door in our residence hall was killed in a car accident just before Thanksgiving.  When I returned home for Christmas, I was hospitalized and did not know if I could even return for my second semester. So, I did not have the most auspicious start as an undergraduate. Unfortunately, the college that I attended did not have a Career Center and did not have a Counseling Centerwe had one individual who served as the counselor for careers and anything else you might need. So we were really lacking support outside of the classroom.

However, I did have an amazing professor who saw something in me and allowed me to take her Women in Leadership course even though I was only a freshman.  And that course changed my life because I realized, as a woman, you can do more than you might have expected and you should do more. You’ve been privileged to get this education, now what will you do with this education? And eventually it was through a conversation with her that I decided to transfer colleges, because I realized it was not the college where I needed to be.

The ironic backstory is that this professor was the most popular teacher on campus, but she did not have an academic credential beyond an undergraduate degree.  So even though the student body had voted her as outstanding teacher that year, the college fired her. And it was really devastating to all of us because she was truly fundamental to our education. Credentials may be important, but they do not determine the value of an individual, or the ultimate impact the individual can have on others.  

The primary reason that I took the role here as a Clinical Professor at William & Mary, and gave up tenure at my previous college, was that I wanted to focus on teaching.  Had there been clinical roles 30 years ago, perhaps Professor Pedrick would still be teaching.

As a quick side note the most wonderful part of social media is the connections that we can maintain and, after years of searching, I finally found Professor Pedrick on Facebook.  It was my greatest joy to reach out to her and thank her for making such a difference in my life. During my freshman year, I was suicidal and really did not know how I was going to work through all of the challenges that I had. So it was such a gift to reconnect with herI actually posted about her on Facebook and asked my former students to also post to show her how many lives she’s touched through how she inspired me.  

That’s amazing! Do you still keep in contact with her?

Yes! I still live for her posts on Facebook! She tells me that she’s proud of me, and that’s as good as it gets for me!

How did she react when she found out you’re teaching here at William & Mary?

She was very proud and so kind on a personal level.  It is not just the professional achievements that she appreciates, but more importantly the person that I have become. As we think about the importance of Humans of William & Mary, she was undoubtedly the human touch that that truly changed the trajectory of of my life.

Do you have any memorable interactions with students or something that just really resonated with you?

Now that I have been teaching for nearly 20 years, there’s not a day that passes that I do not receive a kind word from a current student or former student.  I still have challenging days as a professor, but when you focus upon our inspiring students, I know my role at William & Mary is simply as good as it gets.

Can you tell me about a time when you were inspired by your students?

I am constantly inspired by students!  One particular story that I can share is the response that I received when I first presented a Socialnomics video that highlights facts and figures about how social media and digital tools are changing the world around us. The video features statistics such as 92% of all children under the age of 2 have a digital shadow. And that a goldfish has an attention span of 8 seconds, while humans have an attention span of 7 seconds. I was really excited to introduce my class to this creative video to inspire their thinking about how these factors could affect how we communicate in this evolving world.  So when I asked them what they thought about the video, I was stunned when a student responded, “Dr. Edmiston, I think that was the most depressing video I’ve ever seen.”  And I said to him, “Why? That was not the answer I was expecting!” And he quietly said, “How will I ever compete in that world.” I’m not usually speechless, but I didn’t know how to respond to him. I hadn’t viewed the video like that. And I quickly learned that he was not the only student with these concerns.  So I started to think about how I could take what I’m teaching about marketing success in organization and start teaching how those factors can be applied to achieve success as individuals. And what resulted was a concept that I titled, “Developing POP”a Professional Online Presence.”  I’ve taught this concept now as far away as China, I taught it last week to the American Marketing Association of Hampton Roads and I am teaching it today to our alumni. That one student interaction, that one engagement, entirely changed how I thought about teaching the fundamentals of digital marketing.

Does that student know you’re doing these POP talks because of that specific interaction?

Yes! He does know and he always smiles and appreciates when I remind him about it. He said it was the least he could do for me.

When you reach students like this one, who are at a loss on how to move forward, that’s what really matters.  However, I have come to the realization that I cannot reach all students, and that was hard when I first arrived at William & Mary. I was just so happy to be here, but the academic year of 2014, was really hard for us.  My first two weeks here, I had more students wanting to meet with me to discuss mental health issues than to discuss academic concerns. And, I never expected that. Of course, if you’re not doing well as a whole person, how will you ever do well in class?  It is so important to focus not just on the mind, but on the body and spirit as well. I really appreciate that William & Mary has developed an approach to integrative wellness; in fact, two of my Marketing Strategy teams this semester focused on the launch of our new Integrative Wellness Center this fall.  

How did you help students when they approached you for mental health issues, even when that isn’t your profession?

Empathy is the foundation of all that I do. And these are the conversations that we need to have, that I want to have. Sometimes people just need to be heard, and know that they matter. And again, I think it’s the greatest attribute of the Humans of William & Mary movement–that we see one another as humans, that we don’t live our lives so quickly to fail to appreciate the beauty in each other.

In my generation, there was a television program called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  You can ask anybody my age raised in the US if they know Mister Rogers and they will respond, “Yes!” He was so kind and wonderful because he made you feel like he heard you, even through the television screen. And he just so happened to have been born in the town of my previous college, so when he passed away, we inherited all of this archives. I often think to myself, what would Mister Rogers do? After 9/11 he developed public service announcements to let children know that they mattered, that they had a voice, that they were loved and supported. And sometimes, that’s all an individual needs to hear and be reminded of.

Of course, if students need greater support, I encourage them to access our Integrative Wellness Center. We seem to recognize the importance of seeking support for our academic needs, but we also need to seek support for our wellness needs. I’m thankful they feel that they can approach me. I tell them on the first day of class, that my door is open.  My students all have my mobile number so they know how to reach me. I’ve never had a student abuse that in all my years of teaching; they’ve always been very respectful. When they reach out to me, I know they really need me.

If you could say anything to the future women at the College, what would you say?

Be bold, be honest, and pursue your passions. Do not feel that you need to be somebody society expects you to be. We will be in a better place in this world when we recognize and respect the value of individual voices and the joy of diversity.

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