Laura White on the Disruption Needed in Higher Education: Empathy

This is the first of a series of posts featuring Exchange participants discussing “Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education.” This week we feature Laura White, a senior at Tulane University 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.

A former Ashoka Youth Venture participant originally from Atlanta, White created and led her own non-profit venture to bring free swimming lessons to underprivileged kids. She has traveled the world studying different models of innovative education. She understands empathy, and thinks she knows how to bring it back to 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.”

When students reach college, for the first time since young childhood they 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.” A lever of change in Tulane University’s journey of becoming a leader in social innovation education, White was the program manager of the school’s first AshokaU leadership team. She 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.

“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, D.C. in 2010. There, she met Alan Webb, a former AshokaU student and graduate of the University of Virginia. The two partnered up to answer 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 created a new model of spreading and sharing knowledge that empowers students to be changemakers. Called Citizen Circles, the concept 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 built on the ideas of empathy and community as ways 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, with their success based on the ideas and interests of its members.

“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.