It has been quite a month. Since I watched the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris a few weeks, I have been thinking of the challenging years we have ahead of us. With our country so divided, it has become harder for people to find common ground, based on shared values and experiences. It has become very easy to see those who disagree with us as not having a shred of commonality with us. And yet… all of us have parents whom we want to see grow old with good healthcare and respect, children we want to see thrive in our school systems, and loved ones we want to see have secure jobs that bring them both fulfillment and the ability to live comfortably.

Vivek Murthy, who served as the Surgeon General of the United States from 2014-2017, recently wrote a book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” in which he shares the amazing power of community and connection on not just our emotional, mental, and physical health, but also on our ability to enter into healthy dialogue with others. He says,

“When we are deeply connected to other people, one of the great things that happens is that we’re more able to listen to them, we’re more able to give them the benefit of the doubt, and that makes a dialogue possible…it turns out that relationship is the foundation of dialogue.”

He goes on to say,

“So, my mission, my hope is that I can do something…to help move us as a society toward a world where we value connection, where we put people at the center of our lives…Because what that looks like…is a world where we make people and our relationships the focus of our time and attention. It looks like a world where we design our schools, and even our workplaces, to strengthen and support connection. Like a world where we think even about policy, and not just about the financial impact of policy, but the impact it’s going to have on our ability to connect and build relationship with each other.”

With the ability to build relationships as a precursor to being able to truly listen and hear one another, I consider what that means for higher education. We have a responsibility to nurture the skills our students will need, and that includes their wellbeing as well as their ability to serve in positions of leadership. How can we serve our students in this way? How can we design our schools to strengthen connection?

In the classroom, it becomes essential that we take the time – which is often so dearly needed to teach everything – to build communities of learners. When students have opportunities to interact with others and build relationships of trust and collaboration, they learn that different backgrounds and experiences bring benefits to projects and problem-solving. They begin to see how they have areas of commonality as well, which then serves as the foundation of their ability to dig into more controversial and challenging conversations. In the classroom, professors can help to facilitate those conversations, but this work is so much easier if relationships have already been established.

For the university as a whole, it becomes important to consider how we can develop relationships between the different areas of the campus and between the campus and the community that allow trust and understanding to develop slowly over time. So often a university host talks or panel presentations as a way to promote dialogue after a crisis has occurred. As Dr. Murthy explains, it doesn’t work to bring people together who have widely different views on a topic and see if they can duke it out. If there is no connection or relationship for the dialogue to be based on, true understanding will rarely occur. It becomes essential, then, for universities to build relationships and connections when there is no imminent need to do so. Building trust over time by seeing others not by their titles or their beliefs, but by knowing that they have a child they’re worried about, a shared love of Indian food, or a mutual dislike of social media’s messaging. These connections might be simple or deeply personal, but each connection builds understanding on which more controversial conversations can be held. When meeting someone with a wildly different viewpoint, instead of assuming they are all bad, we think, “But they are such amazing caretakers of their parents, I wonder what has led them to think this.” That curiosity is what opens conversations and leads to the ability to really listen and understand others who might be different from ourselves.

Impacting our ability to connect with others is the connection we have with ourselves. Dr. Murthy comments,

“…our connection with ourselves is important and that influences how we connect with other people. Simply that can be powerful, because it gives us the ability to observe our interactions with others and to understand more deeply why we may feel good or not so good after an interaction.”

It is not commonplace in academia to focus on connection to self, or the building of connections to others, except in a few disciplines. However, if this is what our students need to be able to do in order to engage in hard conversations with others, it is exactly what we need to be doing in higher education. In the classroom, and out. The research linking relationships to our physical health, our mental health and our ability to have constructive conversations with others is compelling, and it is our kuleana to shift what we do in higher education to match what our students need to be successful.

In a talk about education Pono Shim, President & CEO of the Oahu Economic Development Board, gave in 2020, he says,

“Education needs to shift from corrective to connective, transactional to relational.”

Although this may not have been how we experienced higher education ourselves, it is how we need to shift higher education for our students. The divides we see in our relationships between political parties, in our relationship with the ʻāina, in the tremendous need to work together to face these current challenges – they demand nothing less.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, April 21). Dr. Vivek Murthy and Brené on Loneliness and Connection. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.