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The Philosophy of Showing Kindness to Strangers

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The University of Miami President Julio Frenk has had a distinguished career as a writer, scholar, and leader. Despite his humble origins, he was the former Dean of the School of Public Health at Harvard University and the former Health Minister of Mexico. As an accomplished author, he published nonfiction texts as well as best-selling novels that explain how the human body works for young readers.

When I was pursuing my undergraduate studies at the University of Miami from 2016 to 2020, I met President Frenk, and he asked me about my plans. At the time, I was interested in becoming a psychologist and in returning to Yemen to erase the stigma around mental health. However, he encouraged me to practice what he calls “career plasticity”—the notion of keeping an open mindset towards opportunities.

Inspired by his sage advice, I shifted my career from psychology to international development because I aspired to effect global change. The career of President Frenk is a true example of plasticity: Born and raised in Mexico and educated at the University of Michigan, his career spans the health, government, and higher education sectors.

President Frenk is a bilingual English and Spanish speaker and writer. When I asked him to share the secrets to his graceful writing, he said the best way to learn writing is through habitual reading. If pressed to share his favorite writers, the American novelist Philip Roth appears in his list.

As a bilingual speaker and writer of English and Arabic, the exemplary model of President Frenk inspires me. He is a writer through whose story I can chart my path. His story shows that being a bilingual speaker and writer is not a deficit but an asset.

Becoming a good writer is no easy endeavor, and most native writers acknowledge the enormous challenge that writing presents. But bilingual writers must consciously learn the myriad rules and tools by which the English language operates.

According to a review published in Neuron, childhood is widely regarded as the best time to acquire new languages, but many bilingual writers begin learning English as adults when the linguistic areas of the brain have already developed. In addition to being poorly timed, bilingual writers are strongly influenced by their mindsets around their self-efficacy in learning a new language, according to a study published in The Modern Language Journal.

A kind act from Julio Frenk

When I was a student at the University of Miami, I was part of a group of international students from war-torn Yemen. Although we had a Yemen-based scholarship that promised to cover our tuition and personal expenses, the war in Yemen prevented our sponsor from sending the money in a timely fashion. As a result, we had to work odd jobs to pay for rent and for food. Yet there was no way we could cover our tuition.

We contacted President Frenk, who promptly connected us to the University of Miami financial aid team. We asked to be exempted from paying tuition, given that Yemen was suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history, according to a United Nations report. With the generous leadership of President Frenk, the University of Miami gracefully allowed us to study without having to pay tuition and without any complex bureaucratic procedures.

Generosity gives historically marginalized students a chance

“Sometimes it is the generosity of strangers,” said Julio Frenk, “that actually gives you the chance to live. And I try to apply that in my whole life. It is something that keeps me connected to every other human being.” The kindness of strangers can get us closer to our ideals of diversity, inclusion, and justice. It can give historically marginalized students a chance to learn and thrive.

Students who hail from war-torn countries often have unruly journeys in U.S. colleges and universities. We have yet to learn the unspoken rules of how the system works. We have much to offer to knowledge production, given our diverse backgrounds. But we need special attention and support—similar to the “kindness of strangers” philosophy of President Frenk—because we grew up in some of the most challenging environments in the world. Above all, we need to see people who mirror our identities in the high echelon of leadership as that inspires us to effect positive change in the world.

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