Trudeau scholar examines youth and empathy in Canada

Graduate Studies, Social Sciences

- Anne MacLaurin

Is empathy changing in a world where social media and globalization are rapidly transforming how we interact with others? The University of Victoria’s Rebeccah Nelems is investigating empathy and youth as part of a prestigious three-year scholarship announced today from the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation. She is one of only 16 Canadian doctoral students receiving a $180,000 award.

Nelems is conducting her research at a time when other studies are suggesting that empathy is sharply declining amongst North American youth. She will explore and compare youth conceptions of empathy alongside an examination of how empathy is increasingly being taught in Canadian schools. Her research will also consider what empathy as a social good can mean at this particular juncture in Canadian history.

“I am so honoured to have won this award and am really excited to be part of such an amazing network of scholars, fellows and mentors working around the world on some of the most pressing issues facing us today,” says Nelems, a PhD student in UVic’s Sociology and Cultural, Social and Political Thought (CSPT) programs and an associate with the International Institute for Child Rights and Development. "Working in community development, I learned that communities have the solutions for the greatest challenges they face. If a lack of empathy is facing young people, they need to be brought into the conversation so that we can learn from them what challenges, resources and solutions they identify. Also, we—society as a whole—have a lot to learn from young people about how the digital age is both opening up and placing new parameters on the way we interact with others."

“Nelems’ research radically questions the fundamental assumptions behind empathy education, its methods and means of implementation,” says her supervisor Dr. Peyman Vahabzadeh, a UVic sociology professor and director of CSPT. “The outcomes of her study will be far reaching and gain tremendous interest from policy makers and educators.”

After earning a degree from the University of Toronto and completing a master’s degree from York University, Nelems has spent the past 15 years providing capacity building support and conducting participatory research and evaluation for a wide range of human rights, children’s rights, gender equality and community development organizations. She has worked for a range of local youth-serving agencies as well as international agencies such as the International Development Research Centre, Canadian International Development Agency, Oxfam Great Britain, Save the Children US, UNICEF, UN Refugee Agency, UN Development Programme and the Child Protection in Crisis Learning Network at Columbia University. She is also a recipient of the SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship and the Canadian Federation of University Women’s Margaret Dale Philp Award.

The Trudeau Foundation today announced the 16 PhD students receiving the 2015 scholarships. The news release and details about the program are available at


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Keywords: sociology, education, empathy, youth, graduate research, student life, award

People: Rebeccah Nelems

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