In a wide ranging and thought-provoking conversation, former Governor General and University of Waterloo President Emeritus David Johnston joined current President Vivek Goel to discuss how the workforce of the future can turn compassion into action. The fireside chat, part of the World Association of Co-operative Education (WACE) 2023 World Conference hosted at Waterloo, used Johnston’s new book “Empathy” as a starting point.

Empathy is the fifth book of a series that Johnston began while Governor General based on his installation address titled “A Smart and Caring Nation, A Call to Service.” The book explores the transformative power of listening and caring. As Johnston sees it, empathy is a vital attribute for university graduates as they enter the workforce.

Not surprisingly, both Johnston and Goel are big advocates of experiential learning as an important tool for preparing students to succeed. “Engaging in work integrated learning provides students and employers a platform to learn from one another,” Johnston says.  “These experiences provide students an opportunity to learn tangible skills, and at the same time intangibles like empathy.”

Johnston describes empathy as the process of turning compassion into action. An attribute that can go a long way towards success in all facets of life. “It’s about building a community and looking out for one another.”

Under Johnston and Goel’s leadership, the University of Waterloo’s co-operative and experiential education programming has flourished. During his tenure, Johnston worked to renew Waterloo’s co-operative education by extending it internationally. More recently, Goel has led a campus-wide vision exercise, Waterloo at 100, that seeks a similar renewal that will ensure co-operative and experiential education continues to prepare students for the future workforce.

“Our role as a leader in co-op and experiential learning needs to evolve to become more socially engaged, robust and relevant,” says Goel. “Incorporating an understanding of how our actions impact others, in other words empathy, is how our students and graduates will continue to make a positive impact on the world.”

According to both leaders, co-op and experiential education empowers students to better understand the world around them.

“When you enter any role, if you use empathy as a guide, your goal should be to try and leave the role and the organization better than how you found it,” Johnston says. That is the same outlook that he recommends new graduates take when they enter the workforce.

At a convocation during his presidency, Johnston once said “dream of things as they might be, and ask, Why Not?" In uncertain times, those answers can be found through collaboration and empathy.

The fireside chat highlighted the final day of the conference that focused on the future of work, engaging work-integrated learning to achieve innovation, entrepreneurship and economic recovery in an uncertain world.