The Compassion Toolkit: One University’s Efforts to Actualize an Institutional Value | Demetriou, Jones, Lewis, Maré

written by: Cynthia Demetriou, Candace Jones, Deanna L. Lewis, Jeannette Maré

In our university’s strategic plan, compassion is a core value. Well into the COVID-19 pandemic, we, four colleagues (an administrator, a staff member, a faculty member, and a graduate student) at a large, public institution, asked our campus community to participate in a half-day, virtual event about compassion. Our goal was to catalyze a campus-wide conversation about compassion, to share how we can put compassion into action on a daily basis, and to consider what more we could do. The event included workshops, a panel discussion, small-group activities, and approximately 400 participants. Many of these participants also submitted documents to a “Compassion Toolkit” made available to the entire campus community after the event.

In addition to collecting information from participants, we contacted scholars at the university who were researching compassion to ask for toolkit submissions. Post event, we qualitatively analyzed the contents of the toolkit to (1) describe what compassion looks and feels like on campus, (2) describe how the campus attempts to put compassion into action, and (3) create recommendations for promoting compassion on campus. We share our findings in the hopes that other institutions will benefit by learning from our experience.


National strains and stresses profoundly influence the college experience and educators across the country are called upon to respond to our times in meaningful ways by engaging in compassion (Reneau, 2020). Universities today are serving as care-giving organizations within and well beyond the classroom. Part of the challenge, some argue, is that universities themselves are toxic environments increasingly run like corporations, lacking positive cultural values, and perpetuating social and economic inequities (Smyth, 2018). Others turn to the university as a beacon of hope believing that higher education has the potential to transform our nation’s troubled circumstances through compassionate engagement and discourse as well as ethical decision making, socially responsible leadership, and a commitment to community development (Rockenbach, 2020).

Furthermore, some scholars and practitioners believe it is higher education’s responsibility to cultivate compassion among our students and future leaders (Daugherty, 2020) and that there is an urgent need for students to learn caring values in higher education through the curriculum as well as through institutional values and leadership (Clouston, 2017). We, believing the latter, are eager to respond to Waddington’s (2017) call for higher education to identify strategies and techniques for leaders, faculty, students, and staff to advance compassion (Waddington, 2017). Student affairs leaders have been identified, in particular, as key compassionate leaders needed to heal social and political divides on campus (Hephner LaBanc, 2019). As such it is essential for student affairs professionals to have a working definition of compassion.

In a review of social science literature, Strauss and colleagues (2016) synthesized definitions of compassion and ultimately proposed that it is an affective, cognitive, and behavioral process.

Compassion consists of five elements: recognizing suffering, appreciating suffering as a universal part of human experience, feeling empathy and connection to individuals in distress, enduring uncomfortable feelings in order to be accepting of and open to someone else’s suffering, and being motivated to act to alleviate suffering (Strauss et al., 2016, p.19).

Compassion is often confused with empathy. Empathy involves sensing the emotions of another individual and being able to imagine the experience of others; however, empathy is not always coupled with action (Cuff et al., 2016). We understand compassion as action to ease the suffering of others and that this action should be foundational to educational experience. The Compassion in Education (CoED) foundation is an international organization aiming to position compassionate thinking in the center of educational experience (CoED, 2018). The foundation asserts: “Compassion compels us to treat everybody with absolute justice, equity, and respect” (CoED, 2018, p.4). The ways we treat one another through daily activity is paramount to the educational experience overall and the success of students.

Researchers are exploring the role of compassion in the student experience. In one study, more than 70% of students reported that they identify with characteristics of compassion as well as thoughtfulness, loyalty, and determination (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). Moreover, research has found that compassion can be developed among college students through purposeful, educational experiences (Plante & Halman, 2016) including activities fostering shared community values as well as student engagement and sense of belonging (McCarty et al., 2013). Scholars call for opportunities to teach life skills including mindfulness and self-compassion to support student achievement and graduate resilient students from college (Mantzios et al., 2020). Also, academic performance has been strongly associated with self-compassion and interventions to strengthen coping and life skills are recommended as part of student success plans (Egan et al., 2021). Collectively, these findings show that it is possible to influence compassion and broaden its presence on campus.

For this broadening to occur, investments are necessary. Developing humanist values on a college campus, including kindness, empathy, and compassion, necessitates investment in time and resources to provide meaningful and continuous engagement with students (Keeling, 2020). This work depends upon advisors, faculty, staff, peer mentors, and student affairs professionals with whom students frequently turn to for support (Reynolds, 2011). It is important to note that these caregivers themselves need compassionate attention, care, and guidance. If individuals who provide care and compassion are not themselves supported, the caregivers are likely to suffer declines in wellbeing (Lynch & Glass, 2020) which can negatively impact work performance.

Consequently, campus leaders must supervise, manage, set vision, and lead with compassion to advance the collective system. Despite the cost and the challenge inherit in this work, universities are implored to advance compassionate action and education as it will result in graduating well-rounded persons as opposed to “just an individual with a credential” (Keeling, 2020, p. 54). Given the importance of this work, we sought to shine a spotlight on compassion at our institution and document the experience.


This work took place at a public, research, land-grant institution situated on native, ancestral lands. The university is designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution serving approximately 44,000 students, many of whom are first-generation and Pell-eligible.

The toolkit includes 118 submissions from 25 campus units including academic colleges, student affairs departments, cultural centers, and administrative departments such as human resources. Submissions included word documents, PowerPoints, infographics, videos, journal articles, books, and video. Additionally, recordings and materials from the half-day event were posted as part of the toolkit.

Thematic analysis, a widely used qualitive technique, guided our exploration of the toolkit. Thematic analysis identifies recurring significances that can aid in the appreciation of phenomena (Saldana, 2011). We sought to identify specific patterns of meaning regarding the phenomena of compassion on campus. Our analysis began with a holistic reading followed by inductive coding (Johnson & Christensen, 2012) where we reread the text labeling words and phrases with codes representing salient ideas. We repeated the cyclical process of interim analysis throughout the study (Johnson & Christensen, 2012). We discussed the data, created memos, and constructed matrices of codes alongside representative quotes from the toolkit. We developed themes as we considered the codes in relation to one another. With the themes we sought to describe patterns in the data to help us understand how the campus community puts compassion into action daily.

Throughout this project we intentionally looked for tangible take-aways to share and encourage compassion in higher education. The way we collected, organized, shared, and analyzed the data was informed by our intentions to identify strategies to improve education through compassionate action.

During analysis, we reflected on our biases. Each author works from a lens of care, kindness, and compassion which influences the way we see the data. Our hopes, aspirations, and biases cannot be removed from this work. Nonetheless, we made best efforts to employ strategies to establish trustworthiness and credibility including negative case analysis, external audit, and member checking (Creswell & Guetterman, 2019).


We first sought to describe what compassion looks and feels like on campus. We found that it included kindness, respectfulness, cultivating a sense of safety, valuing people as individuals, promoting collaboration, acts of services, clear communication, and availability of healthcare including mental health resources. We then identified seven themes describing the ways in which campus partners work to build an environment rich in compassion.

Resources for Personal Growth

Campus partners put compassion into action by providing students, faculty, and staff with resources for personal growth. The toolbox includes multiple recommendations for self-care, tools for personal reflection, and professional development exercises. For example, a student affairs office submitted a one-page guide, developed by a staff member, about how to eliminate negative thoughts and instead use positive self-talk to alleviate the suffering we inflict on ourselves through criticism and unhelpful ruminating on past experiences or things that went wrong. Another tool, submitted by an academic support center, is a series of breathing exercises to increase one’s capacity to remain calm in stressful situations such as tests or exams.

One additional example is a self-assessment, provided and created by the office of human resources, designed to help leaders reflect on the question: “Are you a compassionate leader?” This assessment prompts individuals to reflect on their mindsets and beliefs as well as provides tips for being a compassionate leader. The assessment urged practicing self-compassion because “focusing on your own well-being – by getting enough sleep, eating healthy and exercising – sets you up to make better decisions.” The assessment describes compassion as an unending work in progress requiring constant “fine tuning.” This includes taking time to reflect as a leader and using that reflection to be “more responsive and less reactive.” It also noted that individuals can enhance their own professional development through mindfulness and meditation self-training.

Acts of Service

Acts of service, including community service projects and fundraising events, were identified as tools for promoting compassion and community building. For example, the Graduate and Professional Student Association shared that they show compassion by “providing resources to student-parents, providing mental health resources and communications, offering social gatherings and engagement opportunities, as well as providing emergency response and advocacy.” Through peer-to-peer support, students sought to spread compassion. The same association organized a Food and Mutual Aid Drive where students made deliveries across the city providing donated food, masks, and paper goods to peers. Other units, including administrative units, described collaborating as an act of service. In particular, when a person or a team step in to help another department or individual challenged with completing a difficult task. This was described as a way to alleviate the suffering of those who were stressed and overworked.

Continuous and Clear Communication

We identified communication, including interpersonal dialogue, group messaging, and recognizing the work of others, as a key component of a compassionate environment for working and learning. Campus partners highlighted the importance of communication as a tool to advance compassion. The Graduate College, for example, suggested “asking discovery questions as opposed to giving advice” when talking with students so as to provide students space to express themselves in a safe, supportive manner. The Office of Teaching and Instruction provided guidance for instructors to intentionally “ask students how they are feeling and what is working well” during class.

Others pointed to the positive power of recognition as a potent form of communication. The College of Business recommended “Nominating peers for college-wide award recognition” and the Office of Leadership Development noted, “Sharing appreciation for the people you are connected to encourages a positive work environment.” Through these examples and others, toolkit artifacts repeatedly referred to communication as essential for compassion.

Student Support Services

Strategies for providing student support services compassionately were provided by academic advisors, career development counselors, instructors, and learning specialists. A specific strategy is to be mindful that a student may be going through challenges that you cannot see such as food insecurity or a tumultuous family relationship. Strategies also included thinking about where a student is in their academic journey when they come to a service area. For example, an agitated senior may stop by an advising office because she is having trouble accessing her transcript. Before judging the student’s behavior, the advisor may remind herself that seniors are often anxious about college ending, career next steps, and the uncertainties of the future.

In the toolkit, learning specialists shared how scaffolding tools such as planners and graphic organizers can be tools of compassion to alleviate stress and disorder when a student is struggling academically. Additionally, instructors noted that differentiating academic support such as tutoring based on student need and individual circumstance can be form of compassionate practice. Taking the time to understand where a student is in her learning and then adjusting the learning strategy is such an approach.

Scholarly Contributions

Student affairs professionals and administrators often work in silos from research scientists on campus. As part of this project, we invited researchers at our institution who are investigating the science of compassion in psychology, sociology, nursing, neuroscience, and communications to share their research as part of the event and toolkit. For example, a neuroscientist submitted his research to the toolkit. It provided evidence for the ways in which compassion can be learned, developed, and practiced. Another example is research on daily meditative practice and its influence on the development of compassion. This research was included and the activity recommended as a based tool for community members to integrate into their activities whether that is in the classroom with a project team or individually. Event participants greatly valued this connection to campus-based researchers. While some of the research was highly technical, most studies included some tangible mechanism to apply a finding to daily activity. The researchers appreciated the interest in their work, and they were grateful for our efforts to understand real-world implications of their research that may improve the quality of individual lives at the university.

Mental Health Support

Providing ample resources for, and referrals to, mental health resources was identified as an important tool for building a compassionate campus. The campus community submitted several artifacts in the toolkit pertaining to mental health. For instance, the Learning Center provided mental health resources with tips on identifying common signs of compassion fatigue, which includes “fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy.” The resources provide information on how compassion fatigue can be reduced by “paying attention to your health behaviors, particularly eating, sleep, and exercise; practicing self-care; and creating a support system.”

The Graduate and Professional Student Association shared documents describing the “You Are Not Alone” campaign they initiated to “start conversations around mental health and graduate school.” Mental health referrals and resources were shared by the office of Counseling & Psychological Services and cultural centers. These artifacts noted the importance of raising awareness for mental health needs, and that such awareness may lead to a more compassionate campus.

Safe Environments

Toolkit artifacts described faculty and staff act with compassion as a strategy to create “safe environments.” Inclusivity and safety are described as critical to developing a compassionate learning environment. The toolkit includes panel discussion dialogue in which faculty explored the idea that practicing self-compassion and responding to others compassionately is “an empathic acknowledgement of one’s own humanity and vulnerability” and that it is beneficial for “cultivating safe spaces and environments through empathic listening and non-violent communication promotes an inclusive and compassionate environment.”

Additional artifacts in the toolkit address creating safe spaces through compassion. For example, a diversity office noted that it seeks to advance compassion by creating safe, and inclusive environments. It does so by engaging in education and advocacy events, such as “hosting community health fairs in collaboration with organizations to provide free health screenings to the community, as well as sponsoring anti-racism speakers, and facilitating Spanish for All events throughout the year.”  As another example, the Honors College shared that it creates and fosters “a diverse and inclusive climate where scholars of all backgrounds are welcome, safe, and valued” so as to promote an environment in which “diversity of thought, experiences, and identities, are respected.”


From our findings, we offer seven recommendations (see Table 1) to promote compassion on campus. Our first recommendation is to appreciate the holistic development of students, faculty, and staff. This necessitates care and concern not just for academic and professional development, but for physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Concern for holistic development may be demonstrated through providing tangible supports and resources. For example, university administration cannot simply say that they care for the psychological well-being of students; rather, they must demonstrate care through readily available psychological services and trained academic staff who can make informed mental-health referrals.

Secondly, we recommend providing opportunities for individuals to engage in service and volunteer opportunities. In our analysis, we noted that opportunities for service and volunteering appear to be important for students as well as for faculty, staff, alumni, and donors. As such, we recommended that both on and off campus constituents are invited to participate in activities such as food and blood drives, school supply donations, and fundraising to support students in need. In the toolkit, we saw that alumni and donors value the opportunity to give back to the institution and remain connected to the values of the university by participating in service and giving opportunities. This may help build a legacy of giving and an intuition’s reputation as a caring, compassionate organization.

The third recommendation is to deliver explicit training on best practices for compassionate communication. Modern institutions of higher education include multitudinous, wide-ranging platforms and methodologies for quick and often fragmented communication. On a daily basis, individuals communicate through email, text, social media, virtual meetings, in-person meetings, learning management systems, chat bots, class discussion, and group chats. The availability, speed, and abundance of mechanisms for communication lends itself to ample opportunities for miscommunication. It is recommended that college and university educators learn strategies for compassionate communication across all platforms and modalities. The toolkit includes specific strategies for approaching communication with patience and intentionality so as not to overwhelm students and faculty with multiple or conflicting messages. Devoting time, energy, and training for compassionate communication is strongly recommended for all institutional partners. This includes not just suggestions for best practice, but opportunities and occasions to recognize the work of others and affirm the contributions of diverse individuals throughout the institution.

We recommend training on compassionate educational practices. In the toolkit, compassionate educational practices in the classroom included teaching through student-centered approaches, asking students how they are feeling and what is working well in class, allowing students to collaborate, soliciting input on grading criteria, and adopting flexible deadlines. We noted compassionate educational practices outside of the classroom including student support staff asking appreciative questions as opposed to giving advice and practicing active listening. Similarly, toolkit artifacts highlighted that educational leaders could lead more compassionately by active listening, candid feedback, and practicing self-compassion. Academic advisors were highlighted as critical to providing compassionate care to students during critical points in their academic journey. Advisors can be trained to ensure they meet students with their full attention and are available as students navigate their college experience. Regardless of the reason for the visit, advisors can ensure students are supported with empathy, kindness, and care.

At research universities, faculty members, laboratories, and centers investigate compassion in many disciplines including neuroscience, psychology, sociology, communications, nursing, and business. We recommend faculty and staff who work directly with students, reach out to local researchers to see if there are actionable insights from compassion research that can be applied in the college setting. Furthermore, university administrators are encouraged to acknowledge compassion researchers, support their work, and, when relevant, share their findings with the campus community.

The final two recommendations are inter-related: make mental health resources easily accessible to community members and provide guidance on how to make referrals and implement best practices for creating safe spaces for work and learning. Having easily accessible mental health resources was described, in and of itself, as a form of compassion. We recommend faculty and staff receive training on how to best make referrals to mental health resources so that the information is communicated timely and compassionately. As part of this training, we recommend increasing knowledge of, and implementing, best practices for creating safe, welcoming spaces. In particular those in positions of power (instructors, supervisors, and leaders) are called upon to critically examine their influence and privilege as a necessary part of acting with care and compassion. Throughout this project, participants shared that colleges and universities can promote compassion by creating and fostering a diverse and inclusive climate where members of the campus community from all backgrounds are welcome, safe, and valued. Compassionate campuses respect and affirm diversity of thought, experiences, and identities. Furthermore, institutions can create a safe, and inclusive learning environment by engaging in education and advocacy events covering topics such as anti-racism, equity, and social justice.

Strengths, Weaknesses, and Implications

Strengths of the study include encouraging dialogue on ways in which to promote compassion on campuses during a time when it is greatly needed. In a historical period of political and social unrest, this study encourages campuses to consider compassion.

Our knowledge of the research site, its culture, and its history are assets to this study. We are concerned community members at the institution studied. We invited our colleagues to submit documents to the toolkit and then analyzed these documents ourselves. It is true that we bring our biases and history at the university to the project. It is also true that we want what is best for the people and community of the university, and that influences the way we see the data.

There are limitations to this study. For one, not every department or unit on campus participated in the event or submitted to the toolkit. Furthermore, the compassion into action event and toolkit were implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic when resources and morale were low due to institutional budget cuts and furloughs. Lastly, it is important to note that the individuals who participated in the event and those who contributed to the toolkit represent a small percentage of the campus population. While we describe acts of compassion and efforts to live out the value of compassion, our work does not judge whether or not, as a whole, our university is a compassionate place.

This study has implications for faculty, staff, and students. Given the current political landscape, social injustice, and the global pandemic, infusing compassion into university life is needed now more than ever. As our campuses continue to diversify, it is imperative that institutions promote compassionate care, and safe, inclusive learning environments for students from all backgrounds and identities. Infusing compassion into daily activities, roles, and relationships may aid in better supporting marginalized and minoritized individuals. Another implication of our findings is the potential to use compassion as a leadership style. By operating from a compassionate lens, university leaders can support members of the campus community through uncertain times.

We do not claim that if you implement each recommendation from the toolkit that you will have a fully compassionate campus. While our analysis of the “Compassion Toolkit,” identified actions taken to promote compassion, it is important to note that we did not study the outcomes of these actions. Our goal was to catalyze a campus-wide conversation, create a practitioner toolkit, and make preliminary recommendations that can be of service for continued efforts and exploration. Future research is needed to appreciate which of the recommendations and strategies are most effective.


Compassion can be developed through intentional educational experiences (Plante & Halman, 2016). How, exactly, we do this as higher education leaders is unclear; however, this study shares some initial recommendations. It describes one institution’s efforts to live out its espoused value of compassion. We encourage colleges and universities to ask their campus and its constituents, “How do you put compassion into action on a daily basis?” This exercise in and of itself served as a catalyst for months of critical conversation and reflection. We offer our themes and recommendations to be of service to our fellow college and university educators; however, perhaps the most powerful take away we can offer is to engage your campus in creating your own campus toolkit. The activity of calling upon campus partners to consider and document how they put compassion into action daily is a potent activity for strengthening your campus community and can lead to prolonged reflection and thoughtful dialogue on one of the most critical values of our time.

Discussion Questions

  • What does compassion look and feel like at your college or university?
  • How can your campus community attempt to put compassion into action?
  • What can you do to promote compassion in higher education?


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Table 1
Recommendations for College and University Educators
1. Make a commitment to, and provide resources for, the holistic development of students, faculty, and staff


2. Engage on- and off-campus community members in service learning and volunteer opportunities


3. Deliver explicit training on, and the implementation of, best practices for compassionate communication


4. Train faculty and student service professionals on compassionate education and pedagogy


5. Highlight, support, and affirm research on compassion and identify actionable insights for practice


6. Make mental health resources easily accessible to community members and provide guidance on how to make referrals


7. Implement best practices for creating safe spaces for work and learning


Author Biographies:

Cynthia Demetriou, PhD, currently serves as the Associate Provost for Student Engagement, Enrollment, and Retention at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Candace Jones, MA, is the Elon Academy Assistant Director for College Access at Elon University in North Carolina.

Deanna L. Lewis, DrPH, PA-C, MBA, is a faculty member in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

Jeannette Maré, MA, founder of the nonprofit Ben’s Bells, is a doctoral student in the Communication department at the University of Arizona.