April 3, 2017

By Brady Farmer, Kolten Hagens, Austin Henderson, Phuc Lee, Max Salinger, Henry Sharpe, Devyn Stewart, Ava Stipanovich, Juan Tello, and Bryanna Thumma

This fall, the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center welcomed its first class of Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy students.   The long-term development and success of these students is very important to the Center, and toward that end, we have designed a series of salons around meaningful subjects like noble failure, wonder, and empathy/humility.  These conversations take place around a dinner table and include perspectives from our University and Iowa City communities.

Our final salon of the academic year took place on the 8th floor of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC), and focused on the topics of “empathy” and “humility.”  The Academy students were again paired with guests from the University and Iowa City communities, and everyone was asked to share a time when they had experienced an unexpected act of compassion. 

Bri & Emily

Child life specialists Emily Mozena and Bri Swope share their story with the students.

The gathering also heard from child life specialists Emily Mozena and Bri Swope.  Child life specialists help children and their families navigate the emotionally and physically demanding process of coping with illness, injury, disability, trauma and hospitalization.  Emily and Bri shared how this experience has impacted their lives, and encouraged the students to expand their own understanding of the challenges people face. 

Joy Bots

Bots created to bring joy, hope, courage, and inspiration.

At the end of the evening, Emily and Bri invited the students to create “Bots.”  Bots are small totemic, art objects “programmed” to create joy, hope, courage, and inspiration for the person who holds them.  The students produced one bot for a child at the UIHC and another to keep for themselves.

The following are a few student thoughts on the evening, interspersed with some personal reflections on the topic:

Matt Degner (guest) and Kolten Hagens (student)

Matt & Kolten

For our third salon, we met with a distinguished group of people to examine empathy.  I had the pleasure of meeting with Matt Degner, the Assistant Superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District.  Matt and I discussed empathy in the education system, and how it factors into interactions between teachers and students, and administrators and the public.  Without empathy teachers can be too harsh, students can be too rigid, and the public can hold administrators accountable for things out of their control. – Kolten Hagens, student

Bryanna Thumma (student) and Gabriela Rivera (guest)

Bryanna & Gabriela

For our third and final Bucksbaum salon, the topic we were given to discuss was empathy.  Empathy played a particularly important role in the life of my dinner guest, Gabriela Rivera, an academic advisor at the Tippie College of Business.  Gabriela’s life was severely impacted in 2008 when her husband’s restaurant was flooded.  Gabriela looks back on that year as a time when the community came together to assist her struggling family, and uses those memories as inspiration when extending empathy to her students.  Although we didn’t have time to talk about the specifics of Gabriela’s experience, hearing how the community extended compassion to her family was very touching. – Bryanna Thumma, student

Personal reflection:

Empathy is an important human quality.  In fact, empathy is what makes the world go around.  For example, a doctor needs to have a good sense of empathy to perform his duties well.  A psychologist needs to have empathy to understand her patient’s troubles.  A teacher needs empathy to teach effectively.  Many people need empathy to have successful careers.  The world would be a much darker place without it.Juan Tello, student

Max Salinger (student) and Professor Kristy Nabhan-Warren (guest)

Max & Kristy


Compassionate, complex, and empathic are words I never thought to associate with a professor of religious and gender studies, that is, until I met one.  Professor Kristy Nabhan-Warren is aptly described by these words.  Our discussion focused on what it means to be human.  Many of the stories are too sensitive to be discussed here, and so, I’d like to close with the obvious observation that even the smallest acts of kindness provide a basis for long-lasting relations. – Max Salinger, student

Karla Miller (guest) and Henry Sharpe (student)

Karla & Henry


Empathy and its importance were our topic of conversation for this week’s salon.  I met with Karla Miller and we discussed the importance of empathy in teaching positions. Karla had a mentor when she was young, and we talked about how teachers often fill mentor roles in our lives. While teachers are frequently filled with empathy, we decided that dogs are the most empathetic creatures of all.  Karla and I discussed dogs long after the salon had ended, and I ended up using Karla as a reference for a job.  (Thanks Jan!)  I had a great time and learned a lot talking about empathy with Karla. – Henry Sharpe, student

Personal reflection:

The ability of an individual to understand and relate to another person’s struggles is one of the most important qualities a person utilizes throughout their life.  Compassion – the ability to feel sympathy towards someone who is experiencing hardship – and empathy – connecting with what a person is going through – make up a duo of incredibly powerful personality traits.  An emotionally conscientious individual can make a profound impact in someone’s life simply by exemplifying these qualities. In any occupational setting these skills are vital to making deep, necessary connections with others.  To name a few, people in healthcare must feel for, and relate to, their patients when they are struggling; teachers must be there, with open arms, for their students when they hit a rough patch; and counselors and social workers must relate to their clients to help them live productive, healthy lives.  The ability to empathize and feel compassion for others also extends deep into personal relationships with family and friends.  Everyone has to be able to celebrate with those closest to them when life is wonderful, and offer help when support is needed.Ava Stipanovich, student

Emily Mozena (guest) and Austin Henderson (student)

Emily & Austin


Although we were paired with people from the community, my table worked as a group when talking about empathy.  The others at my table talked about small random (or somewhat less random) acts of kindness, but I see more value in deliberate and large acts of kindness.  Afterwards, we made colored dominoes, and I donated mine to a hospitalized child to make their day/life better. – Austin Henderson, student

Professor Rachel Williams (guest) and Brady Farmer (student)

Rachel & Brady


Empathy is an important trait to develop.  Rachel Williams and I talked about how the empathy of others has changed our lives.  Rachel is a professor at the University of Iowa, and shared many of her own ideas and experiences on empathy.  We enjoyed making art for the kids in the hospital and had a great dinner. – Brady Farmer, student

Personal reflection:

Being touched by a random act of kindness from a stranger can change one’s outlook on life.  This was true for me when right before my graduation, my neighbor, to whom I had spoken probably once in my entire life, gifted me $50 and wished me a happy graduation with a smile.  I had lived next to this man for over 17 years, and never reached out to him in any way, but he took it upon himself to reach out to me before I left.  That touched me deeply.  I aspire to show strangers in my life the same kindness that my neighbor showed me.Devyn Stewart, student

John Boller (guest) and Phuc Lee (student)

John & Phuc


John Boller and I had similar stories of how empathy from others has impacted our lives.  Large family responsibilities and stress caused me to fall a semester behind in high school.  John had a similar experience in school as well.  In both circumstances, a compassionate teacher gave us an opportunity to catch up with our peers.  John is now the executive director of the Coralville Community Food Pantry and provides empathy on a regular basis.  I hope to go into art therapy and do so as well. – Phuc Lee, student

With gratitude to John, and in tribute to all who share their humanity with others, I created this piece.


Phuc's art


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