The only time I ever cried in a professor's office was near the end of a semester-long assignment. My angst had nothing to do with my grades or the approaching deadline.
It was the knowledge from the work that was breaking my heart.
Dr. Sussan Siavoshi, a political science professor at Trinity University, informed my class at the start of the semester that we would be required to subscribe to a newspaper and follow the news of any single foreign country for the entire term. Our research would culminate in a final paper.
I grew up in a household that prized its newspaper subscription, so I had been a casual consumer of news for as long as I could read. But like most Americans, I just skimmed the headlines of stories with international datelines. Many parts of the world only seemed to show up in stories related to war and conflict, and my eyes tended to glaze over the steady stream of bad news.
The former Yugoslavia was crumbling at the time. I chose Bosnia and Herzegovina for the assignment, fascinated by the region's history and the unrest in a multiethnic, multireligious society. I picked the Christian Science Monitor, then a daily paper with robust international coverage, as my news source.
I had a superficial understanding of the crisis unfolding in the Balkans. But once I started following the news vigilantly, I became emotionally entrenched in it. As luck would have it, I had subscribed to a publication that was heavily invested in covering my chosen country: The year I graduated college, David Rohde won the Monitor a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his reporting of the slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the Srebrenica genocide.
It was the daily reading about the march toward this genocide, the growing support for ethnic cleansing, that was haunting me as a young college student.
My high school history class had been my introduction to the horrifying scale of human cruelty. I remember holding my head in my hands when I began to grasp the magnitude of the genocides detailed in our textbooks.
How could the world be letting this happen again?
That was the question that led me to my professor's office. I told her that I was having trouble sleeping. I felt helpless, hopeless, complicit and depressed from following this war so closely. She handed me a tissue and reached for one herself.
I don't remember what she said in response to my questions, but I do remember her compassion. I remember feeling like my grief over something unconnected to myself was legitimate. She gave me permission to ask difficult questions to which there were no easy answers.
The assignment was designed to teach us how to take a sustained interest in things outside our circle. The point was to learn to make connections -- global, historical, political and personal. This is how you teach young people to think about the world in an informed and critical way. In a time when universities are caught in a facilities arms race to attract students, they ought to remember that their most valuable assets are people.
For parents worried about which colleges will give their child the best shot in life: Look for the ones with professors who really care about their students. Relationships -- with their professors and their peers -- are transformative for students.
I turned in my term paper, and I added an international studies major after Siavoshi's class.
I recently found myself again in Siavoshi's office, again in a time of political turbulence. We had an unplanned, serendipitous meeting: She was on campus when I was picking up my daughter from a camp. We hadn't spoken since I had been her student, decades earlier.
I told her I was worried about terrorist attacks at home and abroad, and the political opportunism that sought to tear us apart rather than unite us during these uncertain and scary times. I shared my concerns about my own children, who would hopefully be college students one day.
Again, her wisdom and compassion comforted me.
Siavoshi said she reads the news rather than watching it on television. She knows when to disengage from reporting on tragedies and horror stories. She reminds herself of all the other groups who are vulnerable, remembering the power in building alliances. Sticking up for others is a way of sticking up for yourself.
We are not alone, she said, in our worries or our heartache about the pain in the world.
Twenty years later, I needed to hear that again.