Amy Holiday

Amy is a senior at Tulane University and member of the Ashoka U Live Team.

Laura White on the Disruption Needed in Higher Education: Empathy

This is the first of a series of posts featuring Exchange participants and their understanding of “Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education”. This week we will be featuring Laura White, Tulane senior student and founder of the nonprofit Swim 4 Success.

When you ask Laura White about reforming higher education, she doesn’t suggest lofty bureaucratic changes. She doesn’t talk about funding, tuition or budget cuts. When White envisions positive changes in education, she sees one principle as the fulcrum: empathy.

“The definition of well-being is so subjective,” she said, “and you have to be able to actually understand that if you want to help people.”

White is no novice at understanding and practicing social entrepreneurship. From Atlanta, White is studying political economy and education at Tulane University and has accomplished more by her senior year in college than many can aspire for.

A former Ashoka Youth Venture participant, White has created and led her own non-profit venture that brought free swimming lessons to underprivileged kids, and traveled the world studying different models of innovative education. She’s been a lever of change in Tulane University’s journey of becoming a leader in social innovation education as well. She was the program manager of the school’s first AshokaU leadership team; has worked with many professors, students and administrators on developing curriculum and initiatives on campus; and has partnered with professor Dr. Carol Whelan of Tulane’s teacher certification program to give students the opportunity to create and implement innovative projects in local schools that address a social need.

She’s scholarly, worldly and entrepreneurial.

So, White understands empathy.

And she thinks she knows how to bring it back into universities.

“In early childhood education, we understand the importance of social and emotional development. And so with that curriculum, there is more freedom to talk about warmth and empathy and how we care for other people,” White said. “And I think that that focus needs to be extended because we lose that when students enter higher grades.”

Students reach college and for the first time since young childhood have the freedom and autonomy to explore academically and socially. But rarely do universities use this space as a means to educate students to improve the world they live in. The disruption needed in higher education, White believes, is a vehicle to get students thinking about, leveraging and caring about one another.

“Universities have to make a commitment that higher education is about improving society,” she said, “and they have to provide resources and freedom for students to learn that, and then to create and innovate.”
White is looking forward to this AshokaU Exchange for the opportunity to network with “untraditional circles.”

“I think that if there’s a need that you see, you should be able to go out and solve it,” she said. “And not all young people feel that way, or are in a school that feels that way. The AshokaU Exchange is my favorite conference because it’s the most transformative group of people around.”

And White sees the AshokaU gatherings as an extraordinary breeding grounds for these types of disruptive ideas – ideas that turn people from apathy towards empathy.

White’s current project was sparked at the second AshokaU Summit in Washington, DC in 2010. There White met Alan Webb, a former AshokaU student and graduate of University of Virginia. The two partnered after asking the question of how to make community-based education accessible to all students. After working tirelessly to learn about how students learn and what universities offer, the two have come together to create a new model of spreading and sharing knowledge that empowers students to be changemakers.

The concept is called Citizen Circles, and according to White is a way to help young professionals and students self-organize learning groups around their interests, skills and passions.

“The purpose is to get groups and people asking the question of how they can make a difference and what resources and learning experiences they need to become the changemakers they want to become,” she said.

Citizen Circles is predicated upon the idea of empathy and community in a way that has the potential to shift how students learn. White founded a student group at Tulane called Women in Social Innovation according to this model; it is a group of women who come together to discuss their journeys towards becoming changemakers, and build upon the experiences and support from other group members. The groups are inherently community-based, their success based on the ideas and interests of its members. The groups are organized around the needs of its members, and the conversations and trajectory flow from the applied experience.

“It’s not going to be one person that comes up with the big idea to solve all of our problems. It’s going to be a lot of people making changes and differences in little ways,” she said. “Because you can’t just scale one great idea all the time. Often it takes community-based solutions.”

And isn’t that what empathy is all about? It’s about sharing. It’s about trusting. It’s about growing together as a team. And these, of course, are all lessons from early childhood.