Tim A. Champarde, Lansing Community College
I wonder how many of us have the kind of job that puts us in contact with those we consider to be heroes on a daily basis. I have a job like that. I’m a college advisor and many of my heroes are the students who come in to see me for direction every day.
Personal Tragedy vs. National Threat
I remember vividly one such student who stopped by last year. “Abby” had lost her home and her family business in a freak act of nature right around 9/11. A tornado had gone through the area and, aside from damage to a nearby power station, only her house and her family’s business next door were destroyed, forcing her, her two children, and her husband to relocate. The business would have to be closed for about a year. It was the kind of horrific event that would cause even the most tolerant of people to shake their fists at the sky and scream, “Why?!”
At a time when our entire nation reeled in disbelief and fear of further attacks, Abby was wracked with guilt, stemming from the fact that, on the one hand, the world was on a heightened state of alert for terrorists, while on the other hand, far from the destruction of 9/11, her family had almost been destroyed by an act of nature. With history being rewritten about the most dastardly attack on U.S. soil, her story was buried in the shadows cast by terrorism.
Abby’s heroism also went largely unnoticed. Somehow, stuck in the crotch of this irony of personal horror versus national threat, Abby made her mind up that the means to a solution was to return to her community college and finish her degree. I marveled at her tenacity and courage! When she came in to see me for direction, she was concerned about how to deal with the obstacles in the way of her goal: staying with family was wearing out its welcome; her daughter kept waking up from nightmares, while fearfully walking far from windows during the day; and strain on her marriage was compounding her fears. What does one offer a student to sharpen the concentration needed to study under such circumstances?
As I listened to Abby’s story, another part of my mind was churning on options that would help her develop an effective strategy. The immediate options were pretty obvious. But Abby needed much more than the routine referral approach—she needed something to make her feel empowered to win this battle life had forced her into. In short, she needed compassion with a sense of direction.
One of my role models for compassion is a fellow advisor I work next to, Joan Tirak. Joan lives out her beliefs like few people I have ever known. An active member of Pax Christi, which is renown for its activism in issues of peace and justice, Joan serves every student with her fullest attention and talent. I was especially moved by what she was able to do for one of her students, a refugee man from an African country whose people had suffered horrible massacres.
Red tape abounds for students from other countries, especially since 9/11, and this student had tried to work through a number of different people to achieve what he needed, only to be rebuffed at every contact. When Joan was able to reach the source of the problem and work out a solution, the man expressed such gratitude and happiness that the walls of our offices vibrated with the energy! I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any student so thankful for the work a campus colleague had done, hugging each other and laughing, as though a great victory had been won. He was reflecting the kind of heart this woman has. A model of compassionate action, Joan had become this man’s hero. They often see each other and he still beams with gratitude.
Another of my compassionate heroes on campus are financial aid advisors. They are routinely the pincushions for angry and disappointed students and their families. Gratitude is too little expressed by those they serve. While poking my head into the office of one of these under-appreciated public servants, we talked about recent vacation experiences. He described a hiking adventure where being so lost even his compass was of no use. The image of someone lost using a compass to find his or her way stayed with me for some time. In fact, it hit me like a lightning bolt as I pondered the word “compassion” for this article: compass is a part of compassion.
The Needle with Two Points
The Chinese are among the first people to have a recorded history of using a compass for navigation, on land and on sea. These first compasses relied on a natural magnet—a lodestone—to point in a consistent direction to set one’s bearings. The affection held for this device is still evident today in the Chinese words for lodestone: tzhu shih, literally translated as “loving stone.” Apparently the love spread to the west, as the French word for magnet, aimant, also means loving. One could argue that compassionate advisors are like magnets, attracting students who seek to use them for direction. Perhaps ideal advising involves not only compassion but, like a compass, it reveals a means for positive direction as well.
But that’s only half the story. As I pondered further the function of a compass, it occurred to me that the needle has two points, north and south. In my own experience as an advisor, I have learned a great deal from students and the challenges they have presented me. Not only do they rely upon me for care and direction, I often need them in the same way. “If one student has this problem,” I reason, “many others do as well.” Listening to my students and finding the means to help them achieve their goals often gives me a sense of direction where students in general are heading. We each are like a compass to the other, a sort of yin yang of advising.
Is This Kansas?
Which brings me back to Abby and the tornado. She came to me needing a compassionate ear and a plan for where to go from here. I flashed on the story of the Wizard of Oz and how Dorothy’s world had come unraveled by a tornado. One of the lessons she learned was to stand up and face what scares you. Ironically, of course, we discover the “terrible Wizard” is himself as frightened and apprehensive about life as anyone else. Dorothy discovers she’s her own best hero, since everything she needed, including the means to return home, was already with her—if only she believed.
Abby lit up at the suggestion that the solution to her nightmare life was already in her grasp. I praised her for rising above the clutter surrounding her and bringing herself to where another courageous step needed to be taken: the pursuit of her degree. When I suggested whatever it was inside her that impelled her to do that would also provide the direction toward everything she needs, she glowed with a smile and seemed finally at peace, more determined than ever to overcome the forces against her. She thanked me for helping her; I thanked her for her inspiration.
You are Here!
Vacationers at rest stops invariably consult a map with a little red arrow labeled “you are here.” Where are we as advisors, as educators, today? Let’s be like a compass to one another to compassionately point the way where service to students is concerned. Our compassion, our “common passion,” is learning. Let’s not merely dispense education but inspire others to seek new ways to learn. Let us be as courageous as firefighters and other rescue personnel confidently charging forward and providing the way to what people need. Let us draw our inspiration from the examples of those we serve—our students. In doing so, we will inevitably motivate them to become better achievers and life-long learners.
Tim A. Champarde
Lansing Community College
For Further Reading:
Cite this article using APA style as: Champarde, T. (2002, September). Of courage, heroes, and the compass within compassion. Academic Advising Today, 25(3). [insert url here]