Empathy and Ekhobot: The Softer Side of AI

Having worked in a variety of fields over the course of my career–Information Technology, Human Resources, Administration, and customer service–I can attest to the ubiquitous truth that we are naturally inclined to see things from our particular vantage point of expertise, with the resources, processes, and lexicon we are familiar with that shapes our perspective and approach. This can often make it difficult to empathize or understand someone’s cares, concerns, and goals, which may be molded by an entirely different set of information and experiences. As a result, I have found that the most successful and rewarding connections are rooted in one’s ability to “walk a mile in the other person’s shoes”. The capacity to empathize with whoever we’re leading, supporting, and/or collaborating with allows us to see things with new eyes and identify a different set of challenges and opportunities because they aren’t influenced or informed by our expertise. 

In my current role, I have the pleasure of interacting with CI students through our campus’ artificial intelligence chatbot (AI), Ekhobot. Ekhobot sends students messages about important information to help them along their college journey such as available resources, upcoming dates/deadlines and study tips, along with  checking in on them to see how they’re doing and offering encouragement or even a silly joke. This has made walking in their shoes and seeing the world from their perspective an inescapable but necessary function of managing Ekhobot. What I’ve learned about our students through Ekhobot has expanded my heart at least three sizes (though I promise I’m no Grinch!), challenged my creativity, and affirmed that the work we are doing today in higher education has never been more important.  

Every Student’s Story is Unique

Author Ian Maclaren is thought to have penned the famous adage, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. Our students are no exception to this as they are each fighting their own battles, in their own ways, at their own pace, where no two paths look the same: caregiver to elderly parents, siblings, and/or children of their own. Unexpected homeschool teacher. Full-time worker. Sole breadwinner. Extrovert. Introvert. Cramped living conditions. Limited access to technology. Mental health struggles. Frazzled. Focused. Scared. Worried. Lonely. Vulnerable. Sickness. Funerals. Rejection. Heartbreak. Determined. Resilient. Grateful. Hopeful. Uncertain.

Throughout COVID-19, students have shared with Ekhobot the incredible challenges they’re facing as they continue to figure out how to navigate an entirely unexpected set of circumstances they neither wanted nor planned for. Some students have been worried about the safety of their family or friends working on the frontlines in healthcare, while others have simply struggled to make sense out of the constant stream of information and ever-changing guidelines. Many students have expressed the profound sense of grief over their lost college experience, unease with taking virtual courses, distress concerning the seemingly endless nature of the pandemic, and anxiety over what the future holds, while others have to solve the most fundamental problems of living, such as finding a safe place to stay or how to get 3 meals a day. 

But They’re Not So Different From Us

We can relate to them far better than we realize. While this may be partially due to the fact that the demographic of students is no longer confined to 18-21 year olds whose main focus is to earn their degree, there is simply a collective human experience in this pandemic. We are all affected by it, unable to escape its reach. Whether it’s running errands, grocery shopping, working, exercising, vacationing, or spending time with our families and friends, we have all had to dramatically adjust our activities and the way we live our everyday lives. Regardless of the specific shifts in our routines and structures, there’s no denying the disruption COVID-19 has caused in our lives and the vulnerabilities it’s exposed. We all share in the grief of losing certain experiences we’d excitedly planned for, unease over virtual learning (for ourselves and our own children/families), distress concerning the seemingly endless nature of the pandemic, and anxiety over what the future holds; all of the same kinds of worries and fears our students are experiencing, just with the added life experience that either exacerbates or mitigates them. We are in a season of life that is universally challenging. In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

What’s Worth Knowing

Our students are asking the hard questions of life and looking for some guidance as they navigate complex issues that have no easy answers. Many are struggling to see the forest through the trees: how does completing this assignment/class/semester translate to something beneficial down the road? How can anyone think so far ahead when everyone is just trying to get by month by month, week by week, or even day by day? How does one prioritize so many competing demands on their time, energy, and emotions? While the limitation of resources before the pandemic threatened our students’ ability to pursue their academic goals, these constraints have only swelled as COVID-19 has spread.

Community and Connection

Our students have an incredible sense of humor that has taken me by surprise at times! They enjoy banter with Ekhobot; some are curious about the bot’s favorite food or movie, while others are effusive with their affections, even jokingly proposing marriage! Laughter is indeed the best medicine, and many of the students have returned to the bot asking for a joke when they’re feeling down and discouraged. These lighthearted interactions seem to go a long way in lifting their spirits while simultaneously fostering a genuine connection.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” Providing encouragement to keep going, expressing empathy for the challenging circumstances they find themselves in, and acknowledging that things are not going as planned may all seem like small, insignificant gestures that make no difference one way or another. However, I have found that these morsels of kindness nourish the weary, demonstrating the immense value of each person and helping them feel seen, supported, and cared for. This has been especially clear in their need for reassurance that they aren’t alone. They’re not the only ones feeling emotionally overwhelmed, struggling to focus, or battling burnout. This is particularly significant for the students who already struggle with Imposter Syndrome and wonder whether they even belong in academia. The importance of being affirmed of their belonging here and are experiencing a normal range of emotions in response to a global pandemic cannot be overstated. Knowing they’ve been heard and their voice is taken into account (even if it doesn’t always prevail) is powerful! All of these gestures demonstrate our  belief in the students and all they’re capable of, that they belong here, and have become a valuable member of our dolphin pod.

At the end of the Spring 2020 semester, Ekhobot asked the students what was bringing a smile to their face and helping them get through these uncertain times. I then created a word cloud (shown below) from their responses and shared it with them, reminding them that they help form our amazing community. I’ve returned to this often since then, as it serves as a reminder of our humanity and the ever-present need for compassion and kindness as we continue to navigate these unchartered waters.

Word Cloud of student responses in the shape of a dolphin

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