On a late Tuesday afternoon in April, students gather for their final class of the semester – Honors 298 Life’s MESI: Compassionate Leadership.
The course is part of the MESI Certificate, Mindfulness-Based Emotional and Social Intelligence, in the Honors College at Washington State University. It’s a little quieter than normal in the classroom – likely because the students are dispersed in different locations – their bedrooms, their parents’ living rooms, their apartment kitchens. It is April 2020 – the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused campuses around the country and world to cancel face-to-face instruction and revert to online learning using applications that were once unfamiliar terms – Zoom, Teams, Panopto.
The students settle into their spaces and class begins. Led by adjunct professor, Cory Custer, the students and guest participants – who have been invited to listen to final group presentations, take part in a mindfulness practice. Feet on the ground, shoulders relaxed, Custer gently guides the group on simple breathing techniques to “feel your flow” before transitioning into “normal” classroom conversation.
For this Honors MESI class, such mindfulness practices are commonplace and students are fully embracing this holistic method of teaching oneself to be happy, centered, compassionate, and aware. Moments later, the group presentations begin. The objective? To design and deliver a short lesson to teach MESI concepts and practices to a group of people from the WSU community.
“The MESI Certificate is a new paradigm in undergraduate education that focuses on the whole student and prepares graduates, not only for the next phase in their careers, but for life,” said Grant Norton, dean of the Honors College at Washington State University. “MESI responds to the needs of our students, communities and industries.”
Throughout the two-hour class, phrases like “sit and spin,” “practicing gratitude,” “the drama triangle,” and the “5 Senses Exercise,” are shared among an eager group of young people who, during a time of quarantine, have had to engage with their families and roommates in discussions about feelings, communication, and empathy – a feat not entirely done with ease particularly for the more skeptical contributor.
Established in Fall 2018 through a philanthropic gift from Brighton Jones and Honors College alumni Jon and Gretchen Jones, the MESI Certificate in Honors (pronounced MESSY) addresses student wellbeing, teaches happiness as a life skill, and provides Honors students with the tools to improve their performance, relationships, health and happiness through self-awareness techniques, and exercises in emotional and social intelligence.
To earn the MESI Certificate, students must complete 15 credits of MESI-approved courses in the humanities, social and natural sciences, attend workshops, and fulfill enriching local and global service learning projects designed to fully examine their valuable roles in the world around them. The MESI Certificate complements the academic rigors of an Honors curriculum by teaching students from all majors – pre-med to business to engineering – how to lead with compassion and coach others from above the line.
In early 2020, the MESI Certificate in Honors was approved by the WSU Faculty Senate to be recognized as a university certificate which documents completion of MESI requirements on a students’ official transcript.
MESI-approved courses are notated in the university’s course catalogue. Future plans include extending the MESI Certificate beyond the Honors College to the greater university community.
For Cooper Greenfield, he looks forward to applying the skills learned in Honors 298 toward a career in business. Greenfield recently graduated from the WSU Honors College with a degree in Human Resource Management. “If everyone takes a MESI course,” Greenfield said. “They can see that this Cougs-help-Cougs mentality can extend across the world and take on a deeper level of people-help-people. We are all seeking a meaningful life, free of suffering, where we can love and be loved, and be happy. These classes show us how much impact we have on each other as people, and how much power we have to uplift those around us.”
As the MESI class concludes, trust and openness emerge between the students and invited participants comprised of several university faculty, staff and alumni. Students openly share what they learned about themselves and others through this project. One student comments on how the experience of talking together as a family was refreshing. He finally learned of concerns that his father had when the family needed to move to another state.
Another student says that the exercise allowed her family to dive deeper into conversation with less interruption and more active listening. Students living with roommates now had an opportunity to better understand why people are stressed out.
“I got to see what they were struggling with,” said the student, thus creating a bonding experience that will grow beyond their college existence.
For these MESI students, the intrinsic concept of better understanding themselves and others is a model that will be applied to their personal and professional relationships for many years to come. The MESI Certificate is doing exactly what is was designed to achieve – helping students deal with life’s challenges and preparing them to become effective and compassionate leaders in their school, work and home communities. During this period of massive transition and in preparation for post COVID-19 outcomes, such lessons couldn’t be more timely.