Rhodes College initiative seeks to foster compassionate students

Launched in 2015, the Rhodes Compassionate Campus Initiative encourages inclusive dialogue and mindfulness both in and outside of the classroom.

It is referred to as the sock monkey incident.

In the spring of 2016, a student at Rhodes College hung a sock monkey out of his dorm window with a noose.

“It was not well received by the black community nor a lot of communities,” biology student Sam Regala said. “When you see something like that in the South, it is not a good thing.”

“It was an emotional event to say the least,” incoming Black Student Association president Jamarr McCain said.

The BSA pushed for a town-hall meeting in response to the incident, and the student apologized and informed the campus that he was playing a prank on his roommate by hiding the toy.

This, along with a few previous disconcerting incidents, struck the attention of Rhodes President William Troutt, who wanted to make some long-term concrete efforts to create a more inclusive and empathic campus. 

Those amped up efforts reflect campus-wide changes already underway through the Rhodes Compassionate Campus Initiative. In 2015, a collection of faculty, staff and students launched an effort to encourage compassion and mindfulness both in and outside of the classroom. 

President Troutt first reached out to Dr. Mark Muesse, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes and author of several books on mindfulness and meditation, including a Great Courses compilation.

Memphians join monastics at the Rhodes Day of Mindfulness.

Muesse, who has traveled the globe extensively studying under world leaders of meditation, then reached out to other faculty members who he knew were practicing meditation and mindfulness as well as students who had shown an interest in the subject from some of his classes, and a steering committee was formed.

“We convened every two weeks to bring people together to sponsor concerns about being more inclusive and compassionate as a campus,” Muesse said.

They began to brainstorm ideas and came up with such initiatives as community dinners, where anyone on campus is invited to show up for a free meal and an opportunity to make new friends while talking about issues they are facing in a safe environment.

Muesse and other faculty members have worked to bring mindfulness and compassion into their classrooms and many of them open each class with a minute of mindfulness.

“We stop before we begin and ask everyone to pay attention to their breathing and let go of the impurities of their mind that cause them anxiety,” Muesse said.

It’s working, too, according to Muesse.

“The student evaluations have told us that it is extremely helpful,” he said. “One of the concerns of the initiative is that student life on Rhodes is extremely hectic. We burden them with a lot of work, and they burden themselves with a lot of extracurricular activities.

“The meditation makes them more intellectually acute. They pay better attention, and it gives them a moment of respite during their day.”

Practitioners are led in a breathing exercise at the 2017 Rhodes Day of Mindfulness.

Beginning last fall semester, Rhodes offered its first course in mindfulness. The class is taught by a collection of professors from mathematics and chemistry as well as the counseling center. Students commit to meditating outside of the classroom and getting together once a week to discuss their experiences, questions and issues.

Regala has noticed a difference in her life since getting involved in the compassionate campus initiative as a student liaison and practitioner of mindfulness.

“I realized I had a lot of anxiety and stress that I was internalizing and not finding ways to properly manage it,” said Regala, who hails from Naples, Fla.

“I found that taking an hour walk each day and spending time for myself and taking time to de-stress is very helpful.”

Backers of the compassionate campus initiative have broadened its scope in hosting Memphis-wide events.

In 2016, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and former Memphian Arun Gandhi, who is behind the Gandhi-King Conference and the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, spoke on the Rhodes campus about “Conscious Compassion and Commitment: Ingredients of a Peaceful Society.”

This year, the initiative brought in Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and one of the leading authorities on bringing mindfulness and meditation to the forefront of modern day society, including science and medicine.

“It was awesome,” Regala said. “It was amazing to see how impactful this initiative is and to see how interested the community was to see what he had to say.”

On June 17, Rhodes partnered with the Magnolia Grove monastery, which is based in Batesville, Miss.
About 30 monastics live on 120 acres of the Magnolia Grove Monastery outside of Batesville, Miss. Several monastics from the monastery led a day-long presentation on mindfulness, the third of its kind in the past year in Memphis.

“The monastics at Magnolia Grove are experts on the practices of cultivating compassion, so we thought taking advantage of their expertise would be appropriate, especially for those who can’t drive an hour to get to the monastery,” Dr. Eric Gottlieb, associate professor of mathematics at Rhodes, said.

Gottlieb helps teach the mindfulness course and is a practitioner of meditation as well as a frequent visitor to Magnolia Grove.

McCain sees the initiative as an opportunity for the BSA to work in tandem on shared efforts. 

“Rhodes has made numerous efforts to make the campus even more inclusive and welcoming for everyone who steps on it,” he said. “Our social regulations code ensures that students and faculty/staff will respect their fellow peers who may not come from a similar background/upbringing as them and will not attack them because of it.

“I could write essays about the BSA's responses to incidents like the sock monkey one and Rhodes' longstanding commitment to making sure our campus is a safe and welcoming for people of color and of diverse backgrounds,” he added.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

Signup for Email Alerts