Empathy in College Students

Students in Courtney Putnam’s integrated learning course that links English 101 and College 101 participated in small group “empathy projects,” which involved both primary and secondary research at Cascadia. Here, students in the “Empathy in Higher Education Settings” group present and interpret their research findings.

by Cascadia students Izaya Li, Nick Marquette, Jake Miller, and Maddy Walker

Stress is a core component of every college student’s life. Between the self-medicated, caffeine-filled cappuccinos and populated 24-hour cafes, a college student essentially lives on a roller coaster of emotions. Although some required classes, like College 101, teach students a basic level of reflection techniques, few students actually stop and think how their surrounding emotional and physical environment affects the way they are able to perceive and appreciate others. In this article, we hope to enlighten you to the effect that stress places on your ability to empathize with those around you. Although this article fails to provide the reader with caffeine, the information following this will hopefully expose and provoke more active thinking among participants in higher education.

Empathy in Terms of Higher Education:

Empathy is the ability to suffer through another’s experience vicariously. That is the broad, encompassing definition of empathy. However empathy may take on different forms, depending, of course, on the environment in which it is demonstrated. Empathy in a higher educational environment is tricky. Weird word choice, but you’ll understand what we mean. Higher education is the first example in life where professors have the same, adult –to-adult relationship with the students. For the entirety of an 18-20 year-old’s life, they have been through the k-12 school system, always being treated as a child. It is easy for one child to empathize with another, just the same as it is for two adults to empathize with each other. However, students in higher education still have the mindset that others perceive them as children. Being seen as an adult is no small matter, so it is difficult to describe the seemingly instant transformation from a high school student to a member of an adult education community. This is what makes empathy in college environment ‘tricky,’ as so elegantly put previously.

College brings together adults from completely different walks of life, differing in job type, ranking, ethnic background, sexual orientation, political opinion, and yes, even what colors the dress is. In such a diverse environment, it becomes difficult to empathize in a strange place, with strange people, over strange emotions, ideas, and situations.


Our hypothesis is if an individual is undergoing stress, then they will have a tendency to exhibit lower levels of empathy because the stress will damage the subjective well being of said individual, resulting in a distraction from other’s problems.

Research Method:

We interviewed five different people immersed in the college environment. One staff member, two teachers, one administrator, and one student were sent a list of interview questions (sat down and discussed). We had 12 questions relating to empathy. Some of the questions were focused on a positive outlook, while others were focused on a negative one. In addition to positive and negative, some questions targeted a feeling of accepting and being accepted in the community. One question was designed to shed empathy in a negative light when exhibited too often. The last question of our interview was a curveball. It was the toughest question to answer because it was the most real. A question relating towards death of a loved one was to test how far the subjective was able to extend their empathy.


Our group interviewed members of the higher education community across all walks of life. Using our 12-question interview, we gathered data from one student, two teachers, one administrator, and one staff member.

The first common trend noticed in all five interviews was a question regarding social groups. All the interviewees stated that they avoid those outside the social group. The staff member and both teachers stated their reasoning as this: I don’t want to socialize with people who come off as offensive. The student and one of the two teachers also stated that people who are unfactual or easily disagree with are also avoided.

Another very common trend we noticed was general happiness. All subjects reported an increase in happiness when helping strangers or loved ones. The student interviewee in particular reported that he always puts the needs of his friends and loved ones before his own.

An anomaly noticed in our interviews came to light on question 10. Question 10 asked, “When do you feel you lack empathy for fellow classmates/peers?” The four adults gave similar answers, relating to moral disagreements. However, the student gave an answer that didn’t involve a disparity on beliefs. The student said that he loses a connection with someone when he is unable to hear them (the student is deaf). Once he meets this speech barrier, he feels left out. The final question that yielded interesting or important results was the 12th question. The 12th question was, “How do you react when someone tells you their loved one has passed?” Although all interviewees stated that they would feel compassion and sadness for the individual who lost, the student and teacher stated something reflecting true empathy. They essentially said they would tell them about their experiences with losing a loved one, that they are not alone and it is, “ok to be not ok.”


Overall, our hypothesis was rejected. We assumed that dealing with stress would inhibit or severely reduce empathy towards another, however the student and 2nd teacher’s responses yielded a different result. They gave a profound, deeply sincere answer to the 12th question. Death in the family is arguably the most destructive and stressful event in any individual’s life. If two out of the five interviewees gave a response that satisfies the deepest meaning of empathy, then we can conclude that stress does not definitively inhibit one’s capacity to suffer vicariously through another’s misfortunes.


Briggs, Saga. “How Empathy Affects Learning, And How To Cultivate It In Your Students.” InformED, InformED, 1 Nov. 2014. Accessed 1 Mar. 2017.

Wei, Meifen, et al. “Attachment, Self‐Compassion, Empathy, and Subjective Well‐Being Among College Students and Community Adults.” Journal of Personality, Blackwell Publishing Inc, 11 Jan. 2011. Accessed 1 Mar. 2017.

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