Photo of Andy Rodford in the Quad with students in the background

I created a sticker a few years ago that was widely circulated. It highlights the critical importance of building relationships in the engagement and achievement of every learner on our campuses, students and staff alike. The message was that every interaction, no matter how small or large, was an opportunity to learn about each other, to demonstrate care and empathy, and to increase the feeling of being understood by those around us. The premise is that the more someone feels understood, the more they will engage, which ultimately leads to their achievement in many different forms, including academics, but most importantly in personal confidence and success for life.

The practice of relationship building, of course, is no small feat and takes considerable fortitude to build into your everyday habits. However, it is simple to do, and having positive interest in those around us, with no other goal than for each person to feel more understood, can lead to unexpected impacts.

We all have people in our lives who have had formative impacts on us. I have three of their names on the top of the cork board in my office. These people, who made every effort to understand me over the years through “nutritious interactions” (like eating vegetables, nutritious interactions were not always enjoyable, but in hindsight, I know they were good for me). In part, it is because of these interactions that my engagement in key elements of my life were ignited and the achievements that followed were transformational.

So, are you making every interaction count? It is easy to think you are; however, when you truly consider all of the interactions you have each day, in person and via social media, there are likely plenty of opportunities that pass you by.

In the end, you should ask yourself: what proof do I have that someone feels understood by me? People regularly say confidently that they truly “get” other people and have good relationships, but what’s the proof? What are other people doing or expressing to confirm that they truly feel understood by you?

For some of us who are ‘older,’ we occasionally have unexpected contacts with people from our past who say that we played a meaningful role in their achievement. In nearly every case with me, that comes as a humbling surprise. Each time though, it serves as a fantastic reminder of the importance that every interaction counts and that our positive daily effort to ensure that others feel understood, no matter how insignificant it might feel to you, could be foundational to their engagement and achievement.

The significant impact of small things is also the reason why 212 is on my cork board. This is the temperature when water boils. At 211 degrees, water is just hot, but with the addition of one tiny degree, water boils and changes to a completely different state, filled with latent power.

I will leave you with one concluding thought about the importance of treating every interaction as an opportunity: if every daily interaction is like planting a tree, you may never get to sit in the shade of the trees you plant. However, the oxygen created by planting trees breathes new life for now and for years to come. Your generous gift of building relationships will buoy every person’s learning experience, and, like planting trees, you are investing in the future of our planet.