In Case of Emergency

Before flying, we’re told to locate our nearest emergency exits.  If we’re sitting in the emergency row, we must verbally agree to the responsibility of working the  doors and helping our fellow passengers if necessary. Similarly, now that storm season has arrived in the South,* we’ve all prepared our “safe place,” the basement or an interior stocked with bottled water, flashlights, and a whistle. Families are making emergency plans: if the worst happens and we’re separated, we’ll meet at the elementary school.  In the current gun era, many of us have now gone through the preparations and training for active shooters on campuses.  And thanks to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), we even know what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse. We are prepared for worst-case scenarios.

But are we prepared for what’s most likely to happen, what regularly threatens our classrooms and the lives of those around us on campus? I’ve written about the stresses experienced by students a few times (here and here and here), and I’m sure to write about them again. I’ve written (here and here) about being empathetic enough to notice when something’s wrong and compassionate enough to reach out in appropriate ways. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, one of the leading names in emotional intelligence, notes that

This way of tuning in to another person does more than give us an understanding of their view—it tells us how best to communicate with that person: what matters most to them, their models of the world, and what even what words to use—or avoid—in talking with them. (“Empathy 101“)

This empathy also makes me realize that I haven’t yet fully prepared for these situations.  What about when the regular stresses turn into something the students can’t–and shouldn’t have to–handle by themselves? I’ve certainly encouraged students to connect with campus counseling services, but I’m not sure how helpful that is by itself or if it’s the best way to communicate with them.  What I don’t yet know about my campus’s counseling center:

    Vanderbilt's Psychology & Counseling Center/PCC (Street view from Google Maps)

  • Where is it located, exactly? (“Across from that parking lot at the crook of 21st” is too vague, and the address may be too impersonal for some. Is there a photo of the building/office on their website or in Google Maps’ street view?)
  • Who are they? (“Professionals.” But what are some names? Who are the key people the students will talk to?)
  • What specifically do they offer? (“Help,” “therapy,” and “support”–in what forms?)
  • How can they help the specific situation the student is experiencing (the death of a loved one, family crisis, violence, chronic illness, panic attacks, crippling anxiety dealing with the stresses of school, etc)?
  • What is the easiest way for a student to get in? (Is there an online method to arrange an appointment or ask questions? What specific phone number should they call? Can they just walk in?)
  • And what’s the most effective way to encourage a student to go there? (I know “Have you connected with the PCC?” isn’t it.)

At Vanderbilt, I know that it’s called the Psychology & Counseling Center (PCC), but I haven’t looked beyond their home page, and just yesterday a student showed me exactly where it is. I also completed the interactive online training for recognizing and referring students in distress, but it was some time ago, and I don’t remember the specific information as much as the individual cases it used for illustration.

Now that classes are over, I have no excuse.  After I submit my grades tomorrow,** I’m going visit the PCC to learn more–to answer the questions above, to become familiar with the physical space so I can talk about it with greater confidence, to learn the names of some key people there so it’s not simply a generic office, and to see what materials they have for me to give directly to students in the future. In case of emergency, when I see those red flags of students in distress, I want to be fully prepared. The first step is being empathetic enough to notice and compassionate enough to reach out.  But how?

Do you know the answers for your own campus?  If not, find out–again, in case of emergency.


This seems like an appropriate time to try “Just Like Me,” a meditative exercise in empathy. Click the video to the right for two minutes of guidance.

But keep in mind that while other people may be “just like” you, they may also have different needs.  As Goleman reminds us above, the goal is to find out “what matters most to them, their models of the world, and what even what words to use—or avoid—in talking with them.”

*  This has been a difficult week here in the South. Sending warm thoughts to those in the path of these storms.

** In these weeks of heavy grading, I’ve written less about the research on mindfulness because I haven’t been reading as much, but I’ll start again soon! Thanks for your patience with these less research-focused entries.

Goleman, Daniel.  “Empathy 101.” Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence, Social Intelligence, Ecological Intelligence. 13 Oct. 2013.
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1 Response to In Case of Emergency

  1. I like to start my first-year composition classes by having students do a “what could possibly go wrong?” icebreaker. They work in small groups to identify problems that suspect might keep students from being able to complete assignments on time (that can include anything from computer problems to a premature baby) and develop lists of options for working around the problems. Then I have students write about their individual preparedness plans. I’ve found this very helpful in reducing late work and creating a sense of group cohesion.

    I am also able to spot students who may need some help I can’t provide personally. I get students, for example, who were in special education classes in high school, need special accommodations, and don’t know what’s available to them at college. Connecting students to services at the beginning of a semester is preferable to dealing with emergencies.

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