So I Hear You Care?

Sheila Suarez

A reflection from student staff member, Sheila, about the work that creates empathy.

As a social work major, I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy. Social work is a profession centered around the idea of empathy when working with individuals in need. Social workers are encouraged to find the strengths of a person and empower them to use them, while being understanding of their life experiences and point of view.

The concept of empathy is often gendered as a feminine trait, and perhaps that’s why the field is dominated by women. According to Wendy Chin-Taner, a writer for Cultural Weekly, “Empathy hinges on emotional labor. To have empathy, we have to be able to practice active listening, be reflexive, self-critical, and be able to act on constructive criticism. In our culture, women are more readily expected to practice these skills and are socialized to do more emotional labor, which is why intersectional feminism is at the forefront of social justice allyship.”

Personally, I agree with Wendy, I believe that the amount of women in social work has to do with the history of women being socialized and encouraged to be the caregivers and show intense emotions, like empathy. There have been countless passionate and driven women throughout the history of civil rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and social justice movements. What sets apart these women, though, is their use of radical empathy, a topic I’ll discuss later.

Empathy & Emotional Labor

According to Suzannah Weiss from Everyday Feminism emotional labor is defined as theexertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations.” While, social workers are not the only ones that have to use emotional labor in their profession, they do understand the drain that comes from emotional labor and it is discussed frequently in classes and professional development.

As someone who works in the food industry, I know the necessity there is for servers or those working in retail need to have extreme control over their emotions when working with guests, in order to make sure the guest feel welcomed and taken care of during their time at the restaurant especially when they have a concern or complaint. Having empathy for another person (especially during a busy night at a restaurant!) can be challenging because you have to connect with someone else’s feelings and experiences, causing yourself  to have deeper understanding of your own feelings. It’s important to note that societal and gendered expectations often place a greater burden on women to do the work of emotional labor. As FEM author, Anya Bayerle states, Women are also frequently expected to appear empathetic and concerned for others while simultaneously suppressing any emotion that could be used to dismiss them as irrational or hormonal.” Often the emotional labor I practice at work is not just an industry survival skill but one that is expected of me because of my gender.

But, I want to move beyond just expectations and that’s what brings me to radical empathy.

Radical Empathy

While emotional labor is something that people often already have experience with, managing emotions in a classroom, workplace, or family setting; a newer concept is radical empathy. The first time I heard about “radical empathy,” I was confused, and oh so curious.

In recent years, I have lived my life following one tweet… yes you read that right. A tweet! I know what you are thinking… “but Sheila you don’t even have a Twitter!” ( it’s a confusing story about tumblr and screenshots, that’s not the point).


This tweet, by this person I don’t know, changed my life.  “Don’t become who hurt you.” Based on some of my personal experience, I would have liked to become a hardened person, but I decided I wanted to be the person to lift up others. My hurt and pain does not need to become someone else’s trauma. It took a lot of emotional labor out of me to remember that in moments where I feel like I am being attacked or hurt personally, that the person doing whatever is making me feel uncomfortable might not be doing it knowingly harming me.

That they might be a person, just like me, who has dealt with trauma, has things about themselves they do not like, and has never had someone ask them “what is wrong?” instead of “what is wrong with you?”

Radical empathy is tough to define. At Stomping Ground, a summer camp that focuses on radical empathy, they define it as “actively striving to better understand and share the feelings of others. To fundamentally change our perspectives from judgmental to accepting, in an attempt to more authentically connect with ourselves and others.” There are a few Ted Talks (see the links below) about what empathy is and how it impacts our ability to make connections with other human beings.

Radical empathy has had a huge impact on my life, shifted how I view the world, and how I interact with others. In the future, when I am a social worker, I believe it will allow me to better connect with my clients. It is not so much about putting yourself in the shoes of another person because you will never truly understand that person’s life. Radical empathy is more about striving to be with a person while they feel the feels, making sure that we understand our own judgement and challenging them so that we might accept everyone, actually where they are.

The real point is… Do you care?


Additional Resources for Learning about Radical Empathy:

Peter Laughter’s – Radical Empathy Ted Talk Video

Paul Parkin’s – Reimaging Empathy Ted Talk Video

Brene Brown’s Empathy Bear – Empathy Video

Who You Came to Be Along the Way: Celebrating Our Returning Women Student Graduates

“As you journey through life, choose your destinations well, but do not hurry there. You will arrive soon enough.

Wander the back roads and forgotten paths, keeping your destination in your heart like the fixed point of a compass. Seek out new voices, strange sights, and ideas foreign to your own. Such things are riches for the soul.

And, if upon arrival, you find that your destination is not exactly as you had dreamed, do not be disappointed. Think of all you would have missed but for the journey there, and know that the true worth of your travels lies not in where you come to be at the journey’s end, but who you came to be along the way.”



As students across the country prepare for graduation, the above quote is one that deeply resonates with me. In fact, this quote was a constant presence in my own undergraduate journey. Once I heard it, I typed it up and printed it out to tape to the mirror in my residence hall room. It moved from room to room with me during my undergraduate journey, ragged and worn, reminding me to enjoy the journey as much as the final destination of graduation.

I stumbled upon this very worn paper last week and immediately knew I wanted to read it at the Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates graduation celebration. This event has become a tradition in the Women’s Center as a means to celebrate our continuing and graduating returning women students who are UMBC students 25 years and older seeking their first undergraduate degree. These students are called “returning” because they often have various circumstances that have kept them from the traditional college path and they are now “returning” to college to pursue their degree. Student scholars in this program not only receive scholarships to help financial supplement their tuition, but also benefit from tailored support and programming from Women’s Center staff through individualized meetings, programs, and events that meet the specific needs of older students on campus. Each year we have between 20-25 scholars and affiliates participate in this unique program.

And, while the quote above spoke to me as a traditionally-aged student going to college right after high school, I felt that this quote would even more so resonate with the non-traditional and often non-linear path of an adult learner. So I read the quote after the graduating scholars received their scholars pin to commemorate their time as a scholarship recipient. As I assumed, the quote did resonate with them and their journey to get to this week’s undergraduate commencement and it felt important to share it again in this post intended to highlight and celebrate these graduating students. As you read some of their stories I know, you too, will also understand why this quote about one’s personal journey to reach the final destination is one fitting of the returning women student’s experience.


Returning Women Students at this year’s end of the year celebration and graduation event.

It is a joy and honor to work with these students and in my role as director of the Women’s Center, I want to invite you to join me in celebrating these fantastic students and their accomplishments. Below are some of our graduating students who in their own words share what they were involved in at UMBC, what’s next for them after UMBC, and some sage advice for other adult learners. Happy Graduation!!!




Cynthia Colon,
Newcombe Scholar

My first semester at UMBC was in the Spring of 2015, and I admit I did not see a finish line in sight since I was only taking two classes. None the less I knew I would get there in time. In beginning the Social Work program, I knew the day would come where I would have to be in field two days a week but told myself I would cross that bridge when I got there. I was worried how I would be able to work to support myself and my family and attend field. In the fall of 2016, I met my boyfriend who has supported me in my journey and has been a great help with my children. In the summer of 2017, it was time to notify my supervisor that I would only be able to work three days a week. The prior year I had also passed my certified medical coder exam and thought if worse came to worse I would look for a medical coder job. To my surprise, my job worked with me and I agreed to work three ten-hour days in order to keep my benefits. I was relieved. At the end of July my family and I went on vacation to my home, Puerto Rico. A vacation I was looking forward to before starting my fall semester and my rigorous work schedule.

A few days after we returned from Puerto Rico I was not feeling myself and knew that something was not right. I took a pregnancy test and found out I was pregnant. So many things ran through my mind. Here I was, two semesters shy of graduating, something I had worked so hard for in the past two years and I was pregnant! How would I get through field, working three ten-hour days and taking a class? But I did it, and I will graduate Magna Cum Laude!! My son Aayan was born on April 9th, 2018 and I only missed that week of class. [italics are Jess’ emphasis because wow wow wow!!]

During my time at UMBC- USG campus I was part of the Social Work Student Association. I held the title as secretary for two semesters and then was elected vice president last semester. In addition, I was also a Phi Alpha Honor Society member. My plans after graduation are to continue working at my current job as a surgical scheduler. In the fall I will apply to the advanced standing Social Work program at the USG campus and go from there. As a Newcombe Scholar in the Returning Women Student Scholars program and a Kendall Scholar, I am proud to have shown my older children ages 14, 19, and 20, that it’s never too late to return to college and graduate.

Sage advice –  It is never too late to return to school and graduate. As long as you have the drive and determination you will succeed!

Marie Pessagno,
Newcombe/Jodi Mister Scholar

My name is Marie Pessagno, and I transferred into UMBC as a full time student in 2015. I will graduate as a double major in Social Work and Gender and Women Studies, and have been accepted as a Title IV-E student in the Advanced Standing program at UMB School of Social Work. I hope to combine the two modalities that I have had the opportunity to study, as a social worker in the field of family and children with an emphasis on trauma-based recovery.

As a full-time single mother of two small girls, the thought of quitting my job and returning to school was daunting, to say the least. Through the Women’s Center and the Returning Women Students program, I have been able to successfully complete my undergraduate program with an abundance of support from so many levels. I have been able to find a home within the UMBC campus that allowed me to feel as if I were a part of the college community. I have had the privilege of working for the Women’s Center this past year, helping with the Returning Women Students program which allowed me to form connections and friendships that will last outside of UMBC.

My sage advice would be to become involved on campus. There really is something here for everyone. The Women’s Center and the events hosted by the Women’s Center, are great ways to become involved and to meet and make friends on campus. The connections that I have made through the Women’s Center has totally changed my college experience, and has given me an opportunity to meet a group of diverse people that I am honored to call “lifelong friends!”

Marie was featured in UMBC’s Class of 2018 student profiles. You can read her featured profile here

Marjan Beikzadeh, Newcombe Scholar

As a returning woman early on in my college experience, I endured many hardships. Being far away from my home and living in this country all alone, there were times that these circumstances made it difficult for me to go on, and days when I thought that I would not make it another day, let alone to graduation. Graduation from UMBC was a huge challenge for me and I wanted to quit and take the easy way out. It was at this time, my second year at UMBC that I found out about Returning Women Students programming, and in their meetings I encountered other returning women students and heard about their life stories. Some of them had to work full time while attending college. Others had families to attend to while they still were responsible for their studies. And then there were those very strong women that had families to raise and jobs to work and school all at the same time. It was not until I witnessed their amazing courage and strong character that I found in myself the will and determination to go on. I realized that being so focused on myself and my situation prevented me from paying attention to the way that those women are going through the struggles that I was experiencing, in addition to holding multiple other responsibilities outside of the college.

Being in this program helped me stay motivated and appreciate the hardships and sacrifices of all the women who went through this path, and were brave enough to endure these strenuous circumstances to provide better lives for themselves and for their families. My advice would be for other returning women students to take advantage of this program while at UMBC.

Whitney Pomeroy, 
Newcombe Scholar

When I applied to UMBC, my husband and I had a four year old daughter and a one year old son. We were trying to figure out how long it would take for me to complete my degree plus certification to get my bachelor degree and become a teacher. We were struggling to find ways to pay for everything, including tuition, on one income as I commuted almost an hour to campus. However, I knew I wanted to teach, and I wanted to be a stronger role model for my kids. I started my first semester at UMBC in fall 2014, and though it’s been a long and bumpy road personally, I’m graduating with a degree in Environmental Studies, a Certificate in Elementary Education, and a GPA of 3.87! On my journey I was lucky to find the Women’s Center and the support they provided to returning women students (really to anyone who visits), in the form of encouragement, an out-of-the-way place to study or sit for a few minutes, and also financially. Now that I have completed my internship student teaching, graduation is next week and more big things lie ahead for me. We’re expecting baby number three at the beginning of July and I’m so excited to have been hired in my home county as a third grade teacher!

Looking back, my advice to returning women students is to let your challenges be your fuel and a reason to push harder toward your goals; and when you haven’t had enough sleep in weeks, stop by the Women’s Center for a cup of coffee to help compensate. As much as I hate to hear it, it applies to both good things and bad things, ‘this too shall pass’ and you’ll be better than okay.


Congratulations to our other Returning Women Students Scholars graduating this May:

Christina Allen, Newcombe Scholar 
Samantha Bushee, Newcombe Scholar  
Desiree Porquet, Newcombe Scholar  
Mariah Rivera, Newcombe Scholar 
Emily Wolfe. Newcombe Scholar 


For more information about the Returning Women Student Scholars + Affiliates program, visit the Women’s Center website. Returning Women Students at UMBC are also encouraged to join the group’s Facebook group.


Feeling Like a Fraud

They’re going to find out I’m a fake

“It’s all just dumb luck” “Why would they choose me for the job?” “I don’t deserve this; I didn’t earn this. This has to be a mistake!” “God, if they only knew … “ These are some of the things that have gone through our minds after getting a job, achieving a goal, being praised for a job well done, or even just being complimented on a nice outfit.  No matter how talented we are, no matter how hard we worked to get there, there’s a part of us that feel undeserving. What’s more, it’s not just an evil voice that whisper these ugly things in our heads, but a feeling. A sick feeling in the pit of our gut that just won’t go away, despite our achievements. No, it’s not just you. I’ve been there, too. Yes, there is a term for it: imposter syndrome.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

According to Scientific American imposter syndrome is “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” In other words, you feel like you’re a phony, you’re constantly doubting and second-guessing yourself, and think everything you do is a sham. You are unable to accept your accomplishment, let alone enjoy it.

The term, imposter phenomenon, was first used by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 to describe the feeling often felt by high-functioning women who felt their accomplishments were more from luck than their own hard work and ability. These women felt as if they were fakes, that they would be revealed as frauds.

When first “discovered,” health professionals thought this syndrome affected predominantly women, but now, after much research, they have found it affects men and women equally. It affects people of all genders who are high functioning and high achieving. Now, having said that,  women also deal with pronounced sexism plus internalized sexism which makes this an important topic for us to dig into here on the Women’s Center blog.

Why are women more susceptible to imposter syndrome than men? Perhaps it’s the conditioning of countless generations of women to be “modest,” to be “humble,” to be the caretakers and caregivers and to melt into the background while allowing the men to stand in front, to take charge, to shine. Perhaps it’s the millenia or more of telling our daughters and sisters and nieces that boys are “smarter than girls,” that we are “less than” our male counter parts, that we weren’t meant to be their equals. In Kate Bahn’s piece Faking It: Women, Academia, and Imposter Syndrome she writes: “a recent survey of undergraduates at Boston College, which showed that female students finished college with lower self-esteem than they started with. Male students, on the other hand, graduated with greater self-confidence (albeit lower GPAs) than their female peers.” No matter how much education we acquire, no matter how much more qualified we become, the feeling of inadequacy never leaves, instead, it just gets stronger.


Famous people who struggle with imposter syndrome

Here is a quote by Maya Angelou from the website theHUSTLE. Would you think she struggled with imposter syndrome?

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.”


Michelle Pfeiffer (multiple nominee for Academy Awards and Golden Globe awards, successful actor, producer), Chris Martin (lead singer of the popular band Cold Play, song writer, producer), Sheryl Sandburg (COO of Facebook, former vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, named one of 2012 Time 100 most influential people, wife, mother) … the list goes on. What’s the one thing they all have in common? They all feel they’ve been putting on an act, that they are frauds, none of their accolades are earned.

How do you handle imposter syndrome?

healing 1

There’s power in naming so now that you know about imposter syndrome, how can you fix it? Well, there aren’t any magic pills that will make imposter syndrome go away. No genie in a bottle and a wish or o magic wand to wave over yourself. In other words there are no easy fixes that will make you feel gloriously confident and deserving of it all. There are, however, ways of coping and overcoming the relentless, self-damaging, at times, debilitating taunts.

There are the usual go-to tips: meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, healthy eating and lifestyle, and of course, that elusive ingredient, sleep. Yes, in a perfect world this would solve the problem, but for most of us stress and lack of sleep is the norm, so here are some other tips on how to manage your imposter syndrome. 

  1.  Don’t sell yourself short. The website Personal Excellence states: “Maybe you feel like a fraud because you don’t think you have anything good to offer … know that whatever place you are at in life now, you are here because you are ready for it.” Know that your being who you are is what’s going to give this job the uniqueness that only you can bring to the position. You are the only apple in a sea of oranges.  Or the only orange in the sea of apples.  Or the kiwi … or the grapes …  you get the picture.
  2. “Stop comparing yourself to that person”. As I’ve stated in #1 you are unique. Your accomplishments are unique. Thinking your way is not as good as someone else’s is not only self-sabotaging, it’s futile. You are different people, therefore, your way of doing things are different. You are not them; they are not you. End of story.
  3. Allow yourself to make mistakes. We don’t learn from our successes, we learn from our mistakes. Being wrong, making mistakes, is not a waste of time, merely lessons learned. Get upset, get angry, then get back up and use those lessons. Only you can turn the “wrongs” into valuable “rights”.


Self-doubt, anxiety, panic, fear, stress …    

healing 2

 Everyone has moments of self-doubt and anxiety. We are juggling school, work, for some, family, and many more issues daily. The world is full of things that bring on stress and anxiety, every minute, every hour, every day. The Women’s Center at UMBC is one of the places you can come and share with other women who are struggling with similar issues, experiences, and solutions and options with each other. If you feel you need to speak to someone on a one-on-one basis the professional staff members along with our student staff members, and those who utilize the Center regularly. Know that there are people who understand when you say “I don’t deserve this” or “It was a mistake” or “I’m a fake.” We are journeying, experiencing, and dealing with this very common issue. Please, don’t be afraid to share what you’re going through, even if it’s just with a pen on a sheet of paper. And if it’s keeping you from functioning in your daily life, please, seek counseling. We at the Women’s Center will help connect you with the resources you may need. Know that you are not alone in struggling with imposter syndrome. We are here to listen, and we will help any way we can.


Even More Resources:

From AAUW’s Being a Woman in STEM Isn’t Easy

Check out Feminist Fight Club from the Women’s Center library

From Everyday Feminism – a way to tackle imposter syndrome with an intersectional lens


The Danger of Not Being Like “Other Girls”

Harini Narayan Harini Narayan is a student intern at the Women’s Center.

My childhood was marked by internal conflict. I struggled to understand my ethnic identity and sexual orientation, all the while facing the usual struggles of adolescence. In intermediate school, I was a self-declared tomboy and made friends mostly with the boys in my class. I identified with them more than the girls, and the validation I received in being “one of the boys” only fueled my need to further distance myself from my own gender. I was proud to say I didn’t wear makeup or wear dresses and loved to brag that I was never so shallow as to have a boyfriend (little did I know there was a very different reason for not wanting to date boys, but that’s a realization I wouldn’t come to for a few years). Thankfully, I grew out of that phase before I became an adult.

In retrospect, I recognize the toxicity of my behavior. I put down other girls to feel better about myself, as if wearing pants instead of a dress somehow made me superior. It’s almost laughable how much I’ve changed, but my childhood personality opens the bigger issue of those who do not change, and enter adulthood as a woman that sets herself apart from the rest of her gender on the sole belief that she is somehow better for not conforming to the societal mold for femininity.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with not being feminine. Toxicity lies in not being able to accept a woman’s personal choice may align with societal norms. For example, I still prefer pants to dresses, but I know there is nothing wrong with dresses. Femininity is not a weakness, but a choice that should be respected. Declaring oneself as “not like other girls” shouldn’t be acceptable, unless the one in question is a) not wholly female-identifying (like genderfluid people), or b) a mermaid, werewolf, or other partially supernatural entity that identifies as female, but not human. Even those two instances, what makes someone “different” from other girls is either not completely identifying as female (hence unlike other girls, because they are not always a girl), or not being fully human-identifying (in this case, the “other” girls are human, and therefore biologically unlike a hybrid species).

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 10.58.12 PM

Furthermore, toxic gender culture isn’t limited to women; men face the same issue though it’s presented differently. Toxic masculinity takes the form of repressed emotions. It’s hearing “men can’t get raped,” and shaming those who aren’t interested in sex, sports, or beer. It’s assuming a man is gay because he dresses a certain way, or watches certain television shows. It’s microaggressions that people don’t realize they’ve normalized until it’s almost too late.

Toxicity stems from society, but manifests itself within a gender identity group over time.

Internalized misogyny can be blamed on several things, notably the stereotypes surrounding the different ways in which girls present themselves. When a girl grows up hearing she can either be pretty or smart, she is trapped in a binary that restricts her personality. If you want to be smart, no one will find you attractive; but if you want to wear makeup and date, no one will perceive you as intelligent. She can be a Madonna/whore, a domestic goddess, or a bossy spinster—“or” being the operative word. Only one option is acceptable, but still leaves the woman with enough flaws to be criticized by society. The bimbo is an airhead, an object for men’s entertainment; the domestic goddess is submissive and lacks any sort of worldly knowledge; the bossy spinster is a prude that doesn’t know how to have a good time.

What isn’t considered here is how there is no one-size-fits-all for what a “good woman” is. Society wants a woman that is smart, but always yields to men to ensure she never appears more intelligent than them; she must be attractive but can’t flaunt her sexuality or dislike the notion of sex either; and she must be well-versed in domesticity, able to cook, clean, and tend to the family. Unfortunately for those with such counter-intuitive/competing? expectations, this kind of woman does not exist.

Women are powerful, and they are also multifaceted: a single characteristic does not define them. Women know this about themselves, so why do some hold fellow women to a different standard?

This is the power of misogyny in a patriarchal society. Social constructs form barriers on the personalities of women, which is oppressive to its core. To be taken seriously (read: worthy of a man’s approval), women must confine themselves to the task of boosting men’s self-esteem. If you’re a woman reading this, I want you to think about your own experiences in public with men: how many times have you been interrupted by a man in conversation? How many times have you laughed at a joke you found unfunny, or even offensive? How many times have you been cat called on the street? And how many times have you seen men cat called? The first step to breaking free of that is being conscious of any sort of thinking or behavior that demonizes other women for doing something completely unproblematic. Is her makeup messy? That’s okay, because maybe she’s practicing improving her skills or maybe she doesn’t care how others perceive her. Is her outfit totally unflattering to that body shape? That’s none of your business because the clothes aren’t on your body! Being constructive isn’t the same as being judgmental: telling someone she has lipstick on her teeth isn’t the same as pointing out her makeup is cakey. Women need to respect each other and help each other succeed. In a society designed to put women down, we must rely on each other to lift ourselves back up and stand strong.


A chart dictating some examples of gender stereotypes

It’s hard work to filter our thoughts for all of the toxic things we internalize, but we need to recognize that acknowledgement of sexist thoughts is important. Respect is learned, and people can change for the better if they first admit they need to do so. Years ago, I represented everything that is wrong with the ways society views gender toxicity. Now, I can say that I have educated myself and recognize when I’m engaging in toxic behavior. Nobody is perfect or all-knowing, but it is the effort and willingness to be a better person that makes the world a better place.