Heather Davidson: Speaking from the Heart

by John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing

Note: This is the first of four articles as the campus begins Equity and Inclusion Month and in advance of the first Equity and Inclusion Forum event from 2-4 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15, in the Wilson Library Reading Room. Seminars and offerings from the forum facilitators will run throughout the school year.

When Heather Davidson, an instructor in the Communication Studies Department, was recently asked why she felt she had been chosen to be one of the leaders of Western’s new Equity and Inclusion Forum series, she said her mission in the classroom on focusing on empathy ­– the capacity to understand or feel what another person is going through – would also seem to make her a sure fit for helping facilitate the new program.

But what’s harder to understand is how Heather even got to the point where she would be asked this question, let alone to give “empathy” as the reason for it being asked at all.

Davidson has not taken the traditional path to the lecture hall. Nor has the life she has lived been one that, upon reflection, would naturally result in a person so open about who she is and how this path has led her to imprint upon her students the absolute necessity of empathy as a concept, as an outcome, and as a personal goal.

Davidson’s mother was murdered by her partner when she was 6. She was then sent to live with her father, whom she had never met; this new, uneasy relationship lasted until 9th grade, when, citing a dangerous household environment, she dropped out of high school and lived as a homeless youth on the streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“It wasn’t a good place to be; it’s hard to believe, but the streets were safer than that house to me. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, where my next meal was coming from … but I knew the streets were easier for me to navigate than my home life,” she said.

The next two years were spent on the streets. By the time she left Santa Fe, she was a veteran of countless nights on roofs and in alleys, pregnant with her first child (who is now 18) and in a short-lived marriage – before most of her peers had even been to their proms.

Flash forward several years. Davidson, upon the recommendation of some friends, had arrived in Bellingham after a number of stops through the West. She had found stability in her life by finding the right person to share her life and children with; she had a roof over her head – but she was a 25-year-old mother with a 9th-grade education who had seen more in her quarter-century than most people could pack into a handful of lifetimes. Where was she going to go next?

“I was in a better place than I had been in Santa Fe, but I had no answers. Not until that catalog came,” she said.

One day, included among the usual bulk mail du jour, was a catalog from Whatcom Community College. She picked up. She read it, every word, and she would never be the same.


Higher purpose

Davidson attacked the admissions process at WCC with gusto, getting admission through a loophole that no longer exists.

“Basically, they said that you didn’t need a GED if you could test well enough. I had spent so many days in the library when I was living in the streets – and my reading and communications skills were excellent,” she said.

Two years later, she was WCC’s Outstanding Graduate, and when she addressed her peers at commencement, she had the opportunity to tell her story and how she had found a new path.

“I told them how I had experienced trauma, and how I had been able to transform that trauma through higher education and turn it into who I was now,” she said.

“Once I stopped having to worry about a roof over my head, or a meal, or my personal safety, I could finally start to grow. I was bitter, and distrustful, and undereducated,” she said. “But every day I spent in the classroom took that anger and distrust and began to change it, and I used it as fuel for my ambitions in the classroom.”

She matriculated directly from WCC to Western, and two years later, she was again a graduate, and again her department’s outstanding grad, this time for Communication Studies. Never one to pause and rest on her laurels, Davidson started on her master’s degree in Woodring that fall, and now she is leading her own classroom on campus and winning faculty awards – such as the Carl H. Simpson Bridging Award ­ given for innovation and excellence in the classroom and the Innovative Teaching Showcase for her emphasis on empathy in the classroom ­– in the process.

Which has brought her back, full circle, to that bottom line in her messaging to her students, and to why she was asked to be a facilitator in the new Equity and Inclusion Forum.

“It all comes back to empathy,” she said. “If Sue Lonac at WCC or (Communication Studies professor) Karen Stout hadn’t had that empathy for me – to understand where I was coming from and help guide me down the right path ­– would I be here now, talking to you? Maybe so, maybe not.”

“Hey, we never know where people are coming from, and we never know what baggage they are carrying with them every day,” she said. “And, if nothing else, my experience gives me a unique vantage point into the lives of my students. Hopefully I can inspire them the way Sue and Karen and my other teachers have inspired me.”


Note: or a full list of all 15 E&I workshop opportunities, click here or go to https://west.wwu.edu/training/default.aspx#.




Monday, October 5, 2015