Wired for Compassion: Ilya Lyashevsky | Teachers College Columbia University

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Wired for Compassion: Ilya Lyashevsky
(Ed.M., Cognitive Studies)


Life Before TC:

Ilya Lyashevsky is a technology nerd with the soul of a poet. Born in Russia – his family was part of the mass wave of emigration that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union – Ilya attended Stanford, where he majored in computer science and minored in creative writing, and went on to earn a master’s degree in computer science. He worked at technology startups and published short stories in literary magazines. Over time, he came to the realization that fiction is really about helping people “understand themselves and others, and hopefully building better relationships between people and ultimately a healthier, more equitable world.” Fiction does that, he says, through two key components: psychology and education.

Why TC:

Ilya decided he wanted to explore psychology and education more directly; the road to building a more equitable world through fiction writing seemed a bit too indirect.  So he enrolled in TC’s Cognitive Studies Program, with a focus on social/emotional learning. At TC, Ilya believed he might develop more concrete ways of helping people build the skills they need to better understand themselves and others, and ultimately build a more just and peaceful world. He completed his Ed.M. in Cognitive Studies last semester, and is now continuing in the program, working toward a Ph.D.

TC Takeaway:

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Helping conceptualize and launch a new cell phone app called WeShelter is exactly the kind of real-world project Ilya had in mind. WeShelter is designed to enable ordinary people to make a “meaningful contribution to ending homelessness,” according to its website. The app is based on a fairly simple calculation: most people, especially in large cities like New York, feel compassion when they see a homeless person on the street, but more often than not don’t do anything because they don’t feel there’s anything they can do that will really help, and end up falling into a “cycle of indifference.” So Ilya and a few friends working at a technology startup began brainstorming about possible solutions to break that cycle. “We recognized there are these barriers while believing that most people do feel a compassionate impulse” when they pass by a homeless person, he says. “If there were something they could easily do and at low cost, they would do it. So we decided to try and take away the barriers.”

What’s Next:


WeShelter launched in January, 2015, and Ilya and his team are exploring ways to improve it and expand nationwide. WeShelter works very simply: at any time, a user can open the app and tap on the big green button, which unlocks a small donation pledged by sponsors and sends it to one of three New York City organizations that provide housing, outreach and support services to the homeless. It costs the app user nothing. If you tap on the button when you actually see someone on the street, WeShelter will patch you through to a 311 operator who can dispatch someone to directly assist that specific homeless person. It also collects mapping data that can be used to help aid organizations locate and assist homeless people. “The app is fundamentally about engagement,” Ilya says. “The key idea is when people take that first step, they’re more likely to take the second step. Once we get people on the app, we’re trying to give them ways to engage in the real world. We already see feedback from our users who say, now that I’ve tapped the button, what else can I do?”  That sort of engagement is the promise of the social/emotional learning at the heart of Lyashevsky’s studies at TC, part of his goal of building tools “that enable us to be better people.” And as it turns out, thanks to Lyashevsky’s work, there’s an app for that. 

—Ellen Livingston

Teachers College psychology students are often key partners in the groundbreaking work of the College's psychology faculty. Below are stories of some of the talented psychology students who have earned TC degrees in recent years. To support current TC psychology students, visit tc.edu/supportpsych or contact Linda Colquhoun at 212 678-3679.

Published Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ilya Lyashevsky

Ilya Lyashevsky

Ilya Lyashevsky

Ilya Lyashevsky