Students practice radical empathy at People of NU event

    Students gathered in Parkes Hall Wednesday night to first tell their own story, and then tell someone else’s at People of NU’s “What’s Your Story” event.

    People who arrived introduced themselves to one another in groups of seven or eight before pairing off. Each person would tell a personal story for fifteen minutes, and then listen to his or her partner’s story for another fifteen minutes. Then the groups reconvened, and each person told his or her partner’s story in first person.

    “I thought the concept of different people telling their narratives and then someone else having to really try and understand that as if it was their own was a really powerful idea,” said Weinberg junior Jon Cohen, who organized the event through People of NU.

    Cohen was inspired to host the event after reading an article from The New York Times Magazine. The story talked about how students from an expensive private school and students from a public school in New York City came together to exchange personal stories in the same manner as the Northwestern students on Wednesday.

    “It was really interesting to see what stories people chose to share,” said psychology graduate student Alissa Mrazek, who attended the event Wednesday night. “Some people played it kinda safe and talked about how getting on a certain team made all the difference. Other people really dug deep and were brave and shared really tough things like parents dying and being betrayed – things that are really tough to tell a room full of strangers.”

    McCormick freshman Edwin Argueta was one such student who shared a powerful story of loss in the hopes that others might understand what life can be like in a different country.

    “People don’t know what the situation in Honduras is,” said Argueta, from Honduras himself, who told the story of how his uncle and his cousin were killed there. “It felt good to see how people realized what’s going on in other places.”

    SESP senior Billy Choo, who moderated one of the small groups, said people might have very different experiences, but can feel very similar emotions regardless of the stories they’ve lived.

    “One of the participants said you feel like someone else might be able to put your situation into better words than you ever could,” he said.

    The event, on the whole, encouraged students to “cultivate empathy,” Mrazek said, by forcing them to take on and embrace a narrative of a stranger they’d met an hour earlier. 

    “It’s one thing to recognize that people have different pasts and to hear, ‘That person grew up poor,’ or ‘That person grew up with people looking at them funny,'” Cohen said. “But to actually tell a story where you’re saying, ‘I grew up poor’ or ‘I grew up with people looking at me funny’ – it’s not the same as living it, but it’s a powerful exercise.”


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