The Power of Empathy & Vulnerability as a Student Affairs Professional

Misty Denham-Barrett, Residence Life Coordinator, Rutgers University – New Brunswick

July 16, 2019

Brene Brown, PhD is a writer, researcher, social worker and generally amazing human
being. I first discovered her when I stumbled upon her viral TedTalk on Facebook years
ago. Her area of focus is vulnerability and how living a wholehearted life can make you
a better person, parent, and leader. After watching every video I could find online of
Brene, I turned to her books. I started by reading Daring Greatly. It is no exaggeration
when I say that this book changed my life. The overall theme of the book is about
embracing vulnerability and imperfections. I consider myself a highly emotional person,
struggling with anxiety, PTSD, and a severe fear of abandonment, this book helped me
embrace those parts of myself to live a more wholehearted life. Daring Greatly was just
the beginning. Over the next couple years, I read two more of Brene’s books including
Rising Strong and Into the Wilderness. All of which had lessons that helped me grow as
a person, a leader, and a professional.

I never expected that that this personal development would have such tangible
benefits to my work as a Student Affairs and Residence Life Professional! I’ve seen it
show up in so many areas including supervision, crisis management, team/relationship
building and diversity/inclusion… just to name a few. Let’s break it down by book and

Daring Greatly speaks mostly about embracing vulnerability and imperfection. It’s
amazing the connections you can make with students when you let your walls down.
Vulnerability is terrifying for most but can be especially worrisome for those of us in
Student Affairs and Residence Life as we worry about setting and maintaining
boundaries in our work. I’ve found that I can maintain my boundaries while embracing
vulnerability and imperfection, in fact it’s vital to the process. The most important thing I
took from this book was embracing imperfection. This has had a critical impact on how I
supervise and engage with students who are having behavioral issues. How often have
you admitted to your staff (or yourself for that matter) that you weren’t the perfect RA?
Student? Leader? As supervisors we often get caught up our jobs as supervisors and
educators. We give feedback. We evaluate. We appraise performance. It all just
becomes a part of the job and we lose sight of the opportunity for vulnerability that can
be found in these conversations. Sharing that you’ve made mistakes. Most of us have
planned a program last minute or half-assed a bulletin board just to get it done in time or
made poor life choices. Sharing these with your staff allows them to see that mistakes
and imperfection is normal! It allows you to help them focus on the growth and not the
mistake. We’ve made mistakes sometimes the same or worse than our staff members
may make but we’ve grown from those mistakes. They have allowed to become
supervisors who can see the potential in our staffs because of the mistakes they made,
not in spite of them.

The second book that I read by Brene Brown was Rising Strong. The lessons I
took from this book built on and expanded from Daring Greatly. I found the words of
Brene coming up not only in supervision and team building but also in how I am as a
colleague and how I respond during crisis situations and how I look at professional

Think about the people you are closest to, the students you’ve had the biggest
impact on… I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen this person and/or they have seen
you go through some type of adversity. Rising Strong emphasizes the importance’s of
reckoning with your emotions, rumbling through the tough middle part and then standing
up to own your story.

Reckoning and rumbling through your mistakes and hardships is tough and it’s
even tougher when you don’t have a space place or person to seek support in. Brene
says “We can’t be brave in the big world without at least a small space to work through
our fears and falls.” We are often that person for so many of our students. It becomes a
million times easier to provide this space when you are aware of your own reckoning
and rumbling process. If you struggle with empathy in relation to crisis management or
opening up about your asks of improvement, I would highly recommend this book. It’s
also important to note here that you don’t have to read her works in any particular order
to get something out of them but they Definity build on one another so if you plan to
read them all, I’d recommend reading them in the order she wrote them.

The last book that I will discuss here is Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for
True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. This book focuses on belonging and
being who you are. She also talks about social justice engagement, understanding
privilege and power and overcoming divisiveness. These are some pretty big topics that
really have an impact on how we do the work that we do with students.
Finding true belonging is at the core of the college experience. It’s what most of
our students seek even if they don’t know it. It’s also what we seek as professionals. It’s
why we move every three years or jump from Residence Life to Admissions to Student
Activities trying to find our true fit. It’s a process that all humans go through for their
entire lives in one way or another.

I’m a huge believer in the idea that you can’t poor from an empty cup. Meaning
that if you want to give and support others you must give and support yourself first. I
think this also applies to personal and professional development. It’s critical for us as
Student Affairs professionals to work through the areas of our development that Brene
talks about so that we can better serve our students as they go through them. No, I’m
not saying you have to be “fully cooked” to do this job but I’m saying you have to
understand that it’s an ongoing, continuous process. We are never done developing
personally or professionally. You may be a Senior Housing Officer or a VP but there are
still things you can learn about yourself and in turn learn about the work we do and the
students we serve.

What it all boils down to is empathy and vulnerability, two things I believe our
world and field needs more of to truly make lasting change, but it will not be easy. As
Brene says “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage
aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”

I truly believe that these books and Brene Brown’s research have impacted me in
so many ways, some I still don’t even fully understand. She also provides lots of
resources to help you navigate the books and utilize her methods which can all be
found on her website. If I could suggest any of them it would be the checklist for
engaged feedback. I’ve implemented this on all levels of my staff and it’s really had a
positive impact on how feedback is given and received by those I supervise. If you are
interested in Brene’s work and would like to join me (along with a few others) for a
virtual book club starting this semester focusing on her newest book, Dare to Lead,
please email me at [email protected] Feel free to read the book now, we will start
weekly discussions of the themes later in the spring semester.

Misty currently works at Rutgers University - New Brunswick and serves on the Executive Board of MACUHO as the Director of Membership Development.  Misty’s passion areas include the importance of living and leading wholeheartedly with empathy at the core of all she does. She is also a Game of Thrones nerd and will never turn down a run to Starbucks and/or Chipotle. Bonus Points if you go to BOTH in the same trip!

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