Sep 17, 2019
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Gabriela Blanco holds her mother's hand. A professor's emails helped her cope after losing her mother. (Courtesy of Gabriella Blanco)

After student lost her mother, this professor helped her cope with it via email

Sometimes, the line between professors and students can be drawn too thick.

But for a Fresno State professor, smoothing the edges is not a challenge.

Dr. Michael Botwin, who has taught personality and evolutionary psychology at the university for nearly three decades, has had a number of complicated situations with students. They vary from pregnancy, death in the family and students with disabilities among others. Recently, it was the first time he has encountered a student losing a parent so early in the semester.

Though unfamiliar with the circumstance, Botwin’s attitude did not fall short of empathy.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything really special, what I’ve consistently done is try to be the best to my students,” said Botwin.

His student Gabriela Blanco disagrees, in a good way.

“The thing that was most special to me was Dr. Botwin,” said Blanco. “I was about to quit.”

Blanco ended her first year as a transfer student at Fresno State on a strong note. However, she had a rough start to the fall semester. Her mother had been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia and was moved into hospice care just days before classes began.

Blanco was shattered to pieces as she attempted to succeed in her education, while combating what is one of life’s toughest obstacle – losing a parent.

Blanco enrolled in Botwin’s class as a last resort after a conflict with another professor, who said that catching up wouldn’t be easy and she would fall too far behind.

But then, something happened.

“There are some things far more important than school, and you need to be with your family now. I will not drop you from class, just come and see me to get a handle on class when you can.” Botwin wrote in an email to Blanco on the morning she would learn of her mother’s passing.

That response shocked Blanco.

“I just couldn’t believe, not that someone was being this nice, but that a professor was being this human,” she said.

In a response to an email just a week after Blanco’s loss, Botwin yet again was empathetic.

“Again, my deepest condolences on your mother’s passing. I understand you may want to jump back in the school as you don’t want to get too far behind. However, I am guessing you still really going through a whole lot of stuff and I don’t blame you if you wanted to hold off another week before attending class.” Botwin wrote in another email to Blanco.

Blanco said she felt that Botwin didn’t talk to her “as an authoritative figure, but as a person.”

In a tweet praising Botwin’s humanity, Blanco wrote: “This is Dr. Michael Botwin and these have been his responses of support throughout this whole nightmare. I haven’t even met him yet and I owe him a huge chunk of my sanity.”

Blanco praises Dr. Botwin’s humanity in a post after the professor’s sympathetic emails. (Courtesy of Gabriela Blanco)

She then followed up with screenshots of the email thread. Although Blanco only has a few hundred followers on Twitter, her tweet was shared hundreds of times and received thousands of likes.  

Blanco and Botwin do share one thing in common: They are both first-generation college students. And for Botwin, he has been on both ends of the stick.

During his undergraduate days, Botwin recalled two types of professor – the ones who worked hard for him and took an interest in him, and those he felt “screwed” him over.

“In my teaching, and in my life on campus, I’ve tried to emulate the people that meant well for me,” said Botwin.

In the past, Botwin has gone as far as making a tangible graph for a blind student out of hot glue and pasta. He said that now, one of the bigger challenges universities face are dense classes that make it nearly impossible for the professor to know every student. But Botwin seeks to be as involved as he can in the success of every student, he said.

“One of my little missions here, my personal undertakings, is to help our students see what they can be,” said Botwin.

Blanco hopes to graduate next year, then will seek a doctoral degree in psychology. She plans to teach at the college level. She surely has the support of at least one person.

“If anyone is a heroine, or in Gabriela’s case a super-heroine, it’s her, I just wrote a few sympathetic emails,” said Botwin.

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