Cultivating Empathy and Cultural Competence


At the heart of Whitfield’s mission is our commitment to character development, exemplified by the Habits of Mind & Heart. While the curriculum is formally delivered through Advisory, opportunities to further develop the six Habits (ethical conduct, cultural competence, citizenship, mindfulness, leadership, scholarship) abound.

Whitfield’s Social Change and World Affairs course, a year-long elective in the social studies department, is designed as an introduction to sociology. During the year, seniors gain an understanding of different sociological perspectives as they think critically, sensitively, and analytically about the condition of different human communities across national and cultural boundaries.

For a recent project, Social Location, students were asked to examine their own lives through a sociologist’s lens and create a multimedia presentation which addressed the following questions: How does society impact your understanding of yourself? How does society influence your personal life? How do social variables (age, gender, race, religion, politics, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, etc.) affect your social identity or location?

The first part of the project included a series of readings and group discussions to learn sociological terms and constructions. Then, as the students prepared for their presentations they chose one of three sociological perspectives (functionalist, conflict or interactionist) in which to frame their identity, and included objects of personal and cultural importance—such as books, music, religious symbols, or sentimental objects—to represent their values, beliefs, and worldviews. Through this project, students demonstrated their ability to internalize what they learned in class and apply it in a real-world way.

“In our class discussions, we talk a lot about identity and how society influences how we think of ourselves and interact with other people,” said faculty member Dr. Michal Kwiecień. “This project gives students the opportunity to learn from each other as they share and tell about their own set of experiences while applying sociological concepts we are studying.”

In her presentation, Alayah Lipnick ’20 included her Star of David necklace and a variety of Whitfield mementos: her Scholar Pin, varsity athletic letters, and programs from multiple theater productions. “I really enjoyed this project because it allowed me to be creative and to share parts of my identity with my classmates and learn a lot about them as well,” said Lipnick. “I also learned a lot about how society can affect how we view ourselves and I think that is really important to understand.”

Maggie Okun ’20 appreciated how sharing personal experiences through the Social Location project strengthened the trust among her classmates.

“I took this class because I am interested in discussing the topics covered in the curriculum including race, gender, class, religion, and sexuality,” said Okun. “At the beginning of the year, not everyone is comfortable discussing these topics and this project gave us the opportunity to learn more about each other which makes having difficult conversations not so difficult. We are definitely developing our empathy and cultural competence—skills will help us in college and in our careers.”