The Empathy Project aims to foster solidarity at Stanford by sharing student experiences

Aug. 17, 2020, 8:16 p.m.

Following the deaths of three Stanford graduate students who took their own lives in 2018, Ph.D. students Bryce Bagley, Lynnette Jackson and Carla Perez recognized the need to foster empathy and community at Stanford. 

Bagley, a second-year Ph.D. student in biophysics, said that the students’ devastating deaths “spoke to a significant amount of isolation, and a lack of mental health care across the board on campus.” 

In the aftermath of these events, Bagley reflected on how he could take action and partnered with Jackson and Perez to introduce The Empathy Project, an ongoing series of interviews with Stanford community members on their experiences and struggles at Stanford. The project’s goal is threefold: “to provide a sense of catharsis to the interviewees, to encourage empathy and a sense of solidarity in listeners and to foster community through sharing and listening to each other’s stories.” 

The Empathy Project was inspired by a radio show that Bagley attempted to start as an undergraduate student at Whitworth University. The project would have involved interviewing students with diverse backgrounds about their experiences at the Christian liberal arts institution. However, his efforts to introduce new perspectives and lived experiences to Whitworth, by interviewing LGBTQ+ students and atheists for instance, elicited an unfavorable response from members of the student body. Bagley believed that providing students at Stanford with a similar platform “could be an effective way to at least do some small part to improve the mental health of students.”

Bagley, Jackson and Perez cite studies that reveal that nearly 70% of Americans experience imposter syndrome in academic or professional settings. According to Valerie Young, a leading expert on imposter syndrome who has given talks at Stanford, imposter syndrome “is the unconscious belief that — deep down — we’re not as bright or capable as others seem to think we are. So we’re left with this fear that we’ll be found out.” Young notes that imposter syndrome is only intensified in high-pressure environments like Stanford. 

Duck syndrome, which was first coined at Stanford, is another phenomenon commonly experienced by Stanford students. Stanford’s Duck Stop illustrates duck syndrome as the idea that “everyone on campus appears to be gliding effortlessly … But below the surface, our little duck feet are paddling furiously, working our feathered little tails off.” Imposter syndrome and duck syndrome can contribute to feelings of physical and mental isolation.

Jackson, a second-year Ph.D. student in structural biology, told The Daily that “as long as we can talk about our experiences, hopefully other people will know that they are not alone.”

The Empathy Project was launched this past week and so far features three podcast style interviews, approximately fifteen to twenty minutes in length, each containing unique perspectives on students’ experiences at Stanford. The interviews are posted periodically under the advocacy tab of the Associated Students of Stanford University’s (ASSU) website. 

The first conversation features a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in biosciences who describes her challenges battling obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) while studying and conducting research for her doctoral degree. A few months after starting at Stanford, the student recalls feeling out of place and, for the first time in her life, experiencing suicidal thoughts. Following a number of sessions with a therapist at Clinical and Psychological Services (CAPS), the student was diagnosed with OCD. She underwent exposure therapy for eight weeks and notes that while she still has lingering thoughts, she is confident about her current well-being because these thoughts no longer make her act compulsively. 

While she sought treatment, her Ph.D. advisor conveyed to her that he did not think she was capable of completing her intended degree and recommended she graduate with a masters, even going so far as to make this recommendation to her thesis committee in advance of a meeting. 

“But after the committee meeting,” she said, “something great happened.” 

A committee member told her that the choice rested with her and she always had the opportunity to change labs — a difficult decision a Ph.D. student can make after dedicating a number of years of research in a particular lab. 

Within a week, she changed labs and described it as “a powerful choice. I moved on with my life and started fresh instead of carrying on that baggage. It was the best choice I could make.” 

In a statement to The Daily, the student, who requested her name not be included in the article for privacy reasons, wrote, “I wanted to share my experiences because when I was struggling academically and mentally, I felt really alone.”

“It seemed like everybody around me was happy and successful, and I thought I was the only one who was feeling lost,” she said. “One of the things that would have helped me the most would have been to know that I wasn’t the only person to have gone through these kinds of experiences.” 

The student hopes that her story will “reach those people who are struggling like I was a few years ago and help them feel less isolated.”

Brenda Yu, a Ph.D. student in biophysics, discussed her experience as a woman and first generation student in STEM in The Empathy Project’s second interview. Yu described her journey in higher education as “stumbling through a path that I made up as I went.” 

Yu told The Daily that, “like many other students with diverse identities, I grew up without representative mentors and often struggled finding a space that I belonged to.” 

“The Empathy Project provided me a platform to share my experiences that might be a common theme amongst my fellow peers and provide positive words of support for others who are currently experiencing the same thing,” she added.

Although The Empathy Project was just launched, Bagley said the team’s goal is to “collect more and more interviews until we have a really broad set of experiences, and to shift the culture away from duck syndrome and imposter syndrome in favor of one with empathy and compassion.” 

Jackson said that she hopes the stories reach “the ears of people who have the power to change aspects of our community,” allowing them to reflect on policies they have implemented in the past or are considering in the future. 

Community members interested in sharing their story with The Empathy Project can contact Bryce Bagley for more information.

Contact Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’

Cameron Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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