Ph.D. from delinquent youth encourages faculty to be friendlier, more empathetic

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Victor Rios, sociology professor at the University of California, speaks to faculty and staff about how to transform student’s lives as an educator during convocation Aug. 21 in McAllister auditorium. Rios faced difficult challenges as a young teenager, but had support from a high school teacher, Ms. Russ, who “…believed in me so much that she tricked me into believing myself,” he said. Visit to view information about support for college students and professional development for educators. Brianna Rodrigue

Positively reinforcing struggling students allows for better chance of academic success, he said.

Sergio Medina

Treating students with kindness leads to better engagement, a professor told about 600 faculty and staff members at a convocation Aug. 21 in the auditorium of McAllister Fine Arts Center.

Dr. Victor Rios’ central message was an encouragement for faculty and staff to be motivational and empathetic with students.

Rios is a sociology professor from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has delivered a Ted Talk and is the author of five books, including “Street Life,” “Punished” and “Human Targets.”

“A lot of times our students come into our classrooms at the higher education level and maybe they’re not prepared to learn,” he said. “It’s important to be in tune. ‘What is it that my student needs?’”

Rios said students with poor beginnings, such as growing up with a limited financial status or being involved with the criminal justice system deserve the same amount of empathy from faculty and staff as every other student.

Rios’ message came from personal experience, as he described his apathy while finishing high school and the struggles he faced. Among those troubles were charges of car theft.

Despite all that, one teacher made the difference in his life when she said, “I’ll be here for you.”

Through this supportive behavior, Rios found the spark to continue his academic career.

For students with a criminal past, Rios presented a hopeful point of view and emphasized the importance of second chances.

“Society thinks: ‘oh, these kids are at risk,’” he said. “I propose that we transform the way we label people because what we label people determines how you will treat them. So if you label me at risk, you’re going to treat me as a risk.

You label the behavior, not the person,” Rios said.

“It is based on class, too, folks,” he said. “If you think about where your students are coming from, they might have a different need than the more confident middle-class population in another part of town. Their need is to feel emotionally connected to you.

Emotional support is the key to student motivation,” he said.

Rios said approachability allows for a more inclusive atmosphere, a “safe space,” for students who may feel alienated.

“I know there’s that attitude out there: ‘we’re teaching adults; they should be acting like adults,’” Rios said. “But that’s not how humans work; we’re very emotional creatures.”

In contrast, Rios said dismissive behavior toward struggling students promotes a further disconnect from their academic duties, causing poor performance. A phrase such as “get over it” can prove detrimental.

Employees received Rios’ message with enthusiasm.

“I was very impressed, extremely impressed,” information technology Director Usha Venkat said in an interview after the event. “I think now I have that motivation to step up my game.”

To learn more about Rios’ work, visit


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