By now, I hope you have realized that I’m a curious person by nature and enjoy reflecting on things around me. It is fortuitous that my parents named me Szu-Yung, which roughly translates into “forever thinking” or “ever reflecting.” As my name suggests, I have been reflecting on the implications of social justice as related to equity, diversity, and inclusion on university campuses. Drawing from my own upbringing and life experiences, I realize I have a personal perspective that might be helpful in framing a broader conversation for our community.
Discovery and Human Connections
Academia has been a good fit for me. When I began my career as an assistant professor almost 35 years ago, I was constantly amazed that I had the freedom to pursue topics I loved in both scholarship and teaching while getting paid to do so. I came to realize that the creative process defines us as humans and that I enjoyed the epiphany from discovery and invention. But the discoveries I valued most were ones with my students—both the students I taught and those whom I advised. My students were from all over the world, different races, ethnicities, and creeds. Without academics, our paths would have never crossed. Over the years, I learned about their interests and struggles as well as their goals, successes, and failures. I found myself in many of them and saw alternative versions of myself in all of them. Those bonds that I formed with students have been the highlight of my academic career.
As my administrative responsibilities evolved—from department chair, to dean, to provost—I made a conscious decision to approach each role with the spirit of discovery I embraced as a scholar and inventor. While my regular interactions with students continued, I also discovered new ways to understand complex situations and experienced distinctive perspectives from my colleagues—often from disciplines with drastically different paradigms. As I grew professionally and personally, I realized that developing an authentic understanding of diverse—sometimes divergent—perspectives was the most effective way to build bridges and make progress.
Authenticity and Learning
An immigrant since my early twenties, I’ve long known that each of our perspectives are formulated from a complex combination of cultural influences, personal experiences, as well as expectations and anxieties—many of which are shaped during our formative years, when our brains are still undergoing major developments (see my September blog). As I have encountered points of view or perspectives throughout my life that contrast my own, I’ve learned to approach them with a sense of wonder—as if I am reading a book or watching a movie with intricate plots. Once I find some degree of resonance that is authentic for me, I can start to appreciate the new perspective and am able to incorporate its essence to broadening and enriching my own.
I do this because, often times, authenticity—the foundation of independent and critical thinking—is missing in our increasingly polarized environment. It is human nature to follow whatever is perceived as the norm by the group with which we most identify. This tribal mentality can be toxic as it seduces individuals into believing that they are right, or morally superior, and others are wrong. Further, it discourages individuals from asking questions and understanding points of view that are not aligned with their own.
When faced with such formidable determination to remain single-faceted in one’s thinking, it takes a great deal of self-discipline, hard work, and intellectual honesty to break open the mind and maintain a genuine curiosity about alternative thoughts and ideas. But it is this very process that helps shape mental capacity to absorb and comprehend new perspectives and mental constructs and formulate a deeper understanding of the world around us.
As educators, we must remember that what we expose our students to when their brains are still taking shape will impact the rest of their lives. It is now well-known that young adults exposed to unhealthy drinking are more likely to develop alcoholism later in life. By the same token, if we fail to equip our students with the framework to think for themselves, and be respectful and curious about perspectives other than their own, that window of opportunity can be closed forever. As such, we have an awesome responsibility to create an environment for our students that is conducive to openness and curiosity, to understand cultures, backgrounds, and points of view that are peculiar from their own—and that is when learning truly occurs. While it is not necessary nor right for them to agree with every opposing viewpoint, they must at the very least learn to examine and respect other ideas. After all, that is the very foundation of our democracy.
Begin with Appreciating Others
Before an intellectual understanding of ideas and dogmas can occur, it’s imperative to truly appreciate others—but that can only happen once we’ve put ourselves in a healthy state of mind. Finding that love and appreciation for people, and for life, took time in my life’s journey. I spent years trying to understand the world cerebrally, but that did not fill the inner void until I started to care about those around me. I knew this, intellectually, since childhood as I walked the neighborhood streets with my mother. As she frequently stopped to chat with everyone, it seemed, I never understood why and often felt impatient. But now I do—kindness and compassion are a way of being.
In the short time we have in this world, we have the option—or obligation—to live in the richest, deepest, and most meaningful way. While the human connection is in all of us, it is also in our nature to be tribal and to seek out those who are most similar. That is why, as educators, we have an obligation to create an environment where our students can develop that sense of curiosity and wonder and that courage for something unfamiliar and someone completely different from themselves. If we teach them to listen, positively engage, and appreciate the people around them, we are helping to create a better world.