Fulbright’s vision to cultivate an academic environment embedded in empathy


Le Ngoc Ky Duyen still recalls Ethics in Context, a course from her freshman year at Fulbright University Vietnam, with fond memories. Designed and headed by Dr. Nguyen Nam of Fulbright’s Vietnamese Studies, the course’s curriculum is interspersed with experiential assignments to illuminate classroom theories, and impart lasting lessons. One of them, known as “Service Learning”, required Duyen and her classmates to dedicate 10 hours minimum out-of-class to a social project of their choice. They decided thereon to organize a workshop about Emotional Intelligence for the children at Luc Hoa Orphanage. 

The assignment brought her closer to the lives of the unfortunate that Duyen, a student from a middle-class family in Ho Chi Minh City, had only heard of on the news. “We gained a fresh look on gratitude, on appreciating what you have, and realized how incredibly blessed we are in life. I’ve also learnt how to be more attentive to the needs of others, that I should be mindful of every word and action around these children so they won’t feel uncomfortable somehow,” she said. “The trip enriched for us the lessons we’d picked up from Ethics in Context. That Buddhism teaches empathy and compassion. Confucianism advocates a world view that transcends individual self-interests. That an individual is not the center of a community, on the contrary, the community should be at the heart of an individual.” 

Ethics in Context forms a vital part of Fulbright’s undergraduate program, whose curriculum is geared towards the cultivation of empathy in our students. At Fulbright, we believe empathy is one of the most important prerequisites for success – a bedrock that unlocks students’ capacity to pursue a meaningful and fulfilling life in a fast-changing world.  

What is empathy? Why does it play such an instrumental role in contemporary education models?    

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand their emotion and point of view which in turn, helps inform our future actions and decisions. Or as Dr. Dang Hoang Giang, a famed social psychologist in Vietnam, put it: “Empathy is the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to place ourselves in their position. Not unlike the effect of a piercing wound or penetrating cold, empathy means having genuine, rigorous insight about another person, so that we can understand their thoughts, feel what they feel, and all that happens around us without bias. The ability to relate to the mind of others and form deep connections with someone else’s soul is a prized cognitive attribute in highly sensitive people.”      

The rise of Empathy Education

Since the early 21st century, Empathy Education has been at the core of efforts around the world to reform education. In Canada, the UK or the US, the number of universities that encourage teaching of empathy skills has increased significantly over the years. Since 1993, it has been mandatory for schools in Denmark to teach empathy classes to students. Today, that Empathy Education is integral to the learning experience of students of all ages is a belief commonly held among education managers and specialists. 

The glowing interest in Empathy Education gained global momentum in 1996 with the publication of “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ”. Its author, Daniel Goleman, emphasized the central role of empathy and similar skills in building positive interpersonal relationships and better understanding of ourselves. The fact that empathy improves a person’s ability to connect and work well with others makes it conducive to enduring rewards in both personal and professional life. Studies have shown that young people with empathy skills are more likely to participate in learning activities, attain greater academic achievements, and develop effective communication skills. Empathy also helps reduce the risk of emotional and behavioral disorders exponentially exacerbated by modern ways of life.  

Subsequently, empathy is now considered a critical marker of effective leaders of the 21st century. Several studies have found that millennials and Gen Z have different expectations, needs and demands for the workplace. Their job satisfaction is neither tied to salaries, bonuses, nor benefits. Instead, they prioritize personal well-being and consider the nature of work, happiness, and meaningful connections with others among some of life’s most essential ingredients – the absence of which may result in higher probability of talents’ departure from an organization. Accordingly, employers must be alert to changing times, stay agile and proactive by investing in quality of life in the workplace to retain skilled personnel.   

In the Harvard Business Review article “Why Do So Many Managers Forget They’re Human Beings”, Javier Pladevall, the then CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail, Spain, said: “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human”; meaning “the power of leadership lies in our abilities to form personal and meaningful bonds with the people whom we lead ”. Only by putting aside preconceived notions of managerial hierarchy, can we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and assume a human-centered lens on issues facing any organization. In other words, to lead by empathy.   

The role of empathy in the Know – Do – Be framework at Fulbright

While the last two decades have witnessed the prominent role of empathy development cemented in education systems around the world, however, this particular approach has not received due recognition in Vietnam, not until recent years. The reason can be traced back to an antiquated mindset preoccupied with the mastery of textbook knowledge, yet lacking proper considerations for teaching social, emotional and ethical skills that contribute to character-building – something Asian philosophies hold in high esteem and have succeeded in the past in the education of its young people. Regrettably, this results in generations of “armchair experts”, those impetuous to profess their ability to have all the answers, yet barely scratching the surface of life.

Ergo, since the earliest days, Fulbright University Vietnam has incisively aimed for the implementation of the Know – Do – Be framework within our programs. 

“While one can be born with talent, possess all the knowledge of the world, or endowed with advantages to sail through life, however, if they lack the qualities that make a truly good person, those gifts would ring hollow,” says Ms. Dam Bich Thuy, President of Fulbright University Vietnam. “The education at Fulbright does not simply equip our students with intellectual and critical thinking of worldly issues. Above all, we firmly believe in instilling in students the desire to serve their community, the fundamental skills to add values to society, and the freedom to aspire to a meaningful way of living.” 

Empathy is pivotal to the pillar of Be at Fulbright, as we believe it provides the basic groundwork for development of compassion and sympathy. “The cultivation of compassion plays a central role in character-building of a person,” adds Ms. Dam Bich Thuy. “Without compassion and sympathy, it will be more challenging for us to make the right decision at critical moments in time.”

Even so, Empathy Education at Fulbright is not simply about teaching Ethics classes or including “Service Learning” assignments in our courses. Empathy has always been an intrinsic value of our liberal arts education and respect for diversity. Fulbright students come from varying socio-economic backgrounds across Vietnam, while our faculty members gather from different parts of the world. Thus, Fulbright is an inclusive community wherein each individual and every member can listen, learn and grow from one another’s perspective – be it life experience, cultural identity, beliefs or value-systems. At Fulbright, from the classroom to campus to dormitory, every voice matters, and every idea is respected.   

Dinh Vu Trang Ngan, Dean of Fulbright Undergraduate Studies, said: “Deep inside, every student has a voice, ideas and individual skills to contribute to the world. We hope Fulbright will be the place where they can find that voice, get their ideas inspired, and hone their skills to explore and become the best version of themselves. More than that, we hope Fulbright students will learn how to connect and work well with others to build a better future for all.”   

A guest who attended Fulbright’s Convocation Ceremony in 2020 once shared with us: the moment that had always stayed in his heart was when Tran Viet Hoang, a visually impaired student, was about to walk onstage to deliver his speech; as soon as Hoang stood up from his chair, the students seating next to him immediately offered their support and helped him to the stage.   

“It was such an instinctive gesture, not forced nor contrived at all,” he said. “For years, we’ve been concerned about a young generation raised on egocentric values. And yet, what I witnessed at the ceremony was those who showed empathy, willing to help their fellow students and human beings. It inspires us with faith in a future generation of young people who will lead a life of compassion, kindness, and responsibility for their community.”

Việt Lâm

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