Bringing Compassion to Campus
By Aiman Ali
I was only 14 years old when I learned my father was dying of Cystic Fibrosis. I spent the next three years as a young caregiver, doing my best to keep up with my work as a full-time student, while coping with my father’s illness and dealing with daily challenges with my mother. This was a tough and exhausting battle for my family and I. As a teenager, I was not prepared for most of the situations I found myself in over the course of these three years.
In the last year of my dad’s life, we moved from our Surrey, British Columbia home, back to Pakistan where we would be surrounded by our compassionate and supportive family. I returned to Canada to live with my aunt and to finish high school in Ontario, after my father died during my grade 11 year—spring of 2013.
When I reflect on that whole experience, I realize how much I had to do on my own with little or no accommodations from the school systems and my communities. Most individuals, particularly youth, don’t have much experience with death, dying, loss and caregiving. This is partly because these natural life experiences are assumed to occur mostly within our adult lives—a myth—and because many parents are not sure how to prepare their children for the reality of these events. For youth that have these experiences, the after-effects are long-term and often lifelong. Living through such events with insufficient community support can be a dark and lonely experience—and it’s a gap that exists within society today.
After high school, I decided to pursue a Public Health degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. In the second year of my program, Bonnie Tompkins, a Brock Public Health graduate, was a guest lecturer speaking about her experience setting up a Compassionate Community in Burlington. I will never forget the day she presented in my class because after everything I had been through … that day I felt that there was some light in my life again.
I learned that developing Compassionate Communities is part of an international movement which supports communities to become more compassionate by focusing on 13 key social changes. These broad changes span all sectors of daily life including education, faith, the arts and community. A fact sheet provided by Pallium Canada provided a great introduction.
I quickly realized that a Compassionate Community was precisely what was missing from my experience as a young carer and bereaved daughter. My friend and classmate, Isabelle Cruz was also inspired by Bonnie Tompkin’s work with the charter and we were both motivated to start a Compassionate Community at our university in September 2017. With tremendous support from Pallium Canada, we jumped at the chance to co-chair the Compassionate Brock initiative. Pallium provided us with the Compassionate Communities toolkit which included everything we needed to gain support for the initiative including a presentation, fact sheet and engaging activities.
First, we had to gain approval from our school’s administration and student leadership through a focus group which was held in December 2017. We knew we were presenting to leaders that had the power to mobilize this change and we practiced more than 10 times to make sure that it went well … and it did!
With the support of Brock’s leadership, we launched Compassionate Brock to staff and students one month later, in January 2018.
As part of the interactive activity to help attendees understand the potential of a Compassionate Community, we shared and discussed the experiences of Brock faculty and students… and one of these stories was mine. In third year, my grandfather died from a chronic illness. We were always very close and that year as well as this loss was and still is, difficult for me. While dealing with the trauma of loss, I was not able to figure out how to receive accommodations or make arrangements to travel to the funeral. In the end, I missed his funeral and stayed at school to write my final exams… all while facing stress, trauma and grief.
‘Compassionate Brock’ participants brainstormed many ways to better support each other when facing these situations in the future. This was an eye-opening experience and everyone walked away with a deeper understanding of the need and importance of this initiative.
As busy fourth year students, Isabelle and I are grateful that Pallium provided everything we needed to launch Compassionate Brock. We’re also grateful to the Brock community for embracing the idea of Compassionate Brock and helping fostering compassion on campus.
We hope that other post-secondary institutions will join this movement so that together, we can normalize these natural experiences and build a more compassionate society, not just within cities and towns, but also school communities.