Volume 84 | Issue 5
September/October 2016

Reaching Students Through Authentic Stories

Hayden Greene

Hayden GreenMy office is in our Student Commons, and groups often use the lounge near the first floor Starbucks as an informal meeting place. A few months ago, as I finished buying an afternoon coffee, one student beckoned to me from the lounge. I walked over with my “Tall Pike” (I’ve had to learn barista-speak), and the student introduced me to her companions, who were all part of a new dance group on campus. She mentioned to the group that I had been a stepper when I was younger (much younger), and the members had questions. I started to share stories about my stepping days and they seemed intrigued. That conversation led to a discussion about greek life. Someone used a catchphrase from “Teen Titan Go!” which led us down a path to talk about new cartoons versus old cartoons. From there, someone asked about the camera over my shoulder (Note: There is always a camera over my shoulder), and the discussion moved to photography. By the time I had finished my coffee, it felt like we had gone around the world and back with our topics. Since that time, I have become the coach for their step team, another student came to see me about their concerns around joining a fraternity, a few others set a time to talk more about photography, and one particular student will become my new ambassador for the Multicultural Center. All this from a conversation over a cup of coffee.

We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to reach students. We go to seminars, conferences, and workshops to get new tips and tricks on how to break through the seemingly impenetrable wall that is the young adult attention span. Personally, I have tried email blasts, Facebook event pages, Instagram posts, Twitter feeds, the works. Some of it is effective, and some of it feels like spinning your wheels in the mud. The truth is that none of it will work unless students view the messages’ sender as an authentic person. People support people—not offices, or positions, and definitely not random emails from someone they haven’t vetted. Let’s face it: Students don’t view us as authentic people, with real lives, until they experience something that humanizes us. How many times have you seen the look of surprise on a student’s face when you tell them that you won’t be able to make an event on campus because you will be going out with your mate? Or the utter shock they feel when they run into you at a grocery store or mall, and it dawns upon them that you don’t actually live in your office? The simplest way to humanize yourself is to tell stories.

The human brain loves stories. Scholar Jonathan Gottschall has talked about how the brain loves stories so much that it keeps telling them even when we’re asleep! Stories are powerful. I could have started this article with the second paragraph. For me, though, my message is more powerful if you, the reader, experience a story that solidifies my point. It’s the same for real-time interaction. Once a student can see that you have lived some aspect of what you are asking them to tackle, they are more apt to sign on for whatever program you’re pitching. If they know that you have a life outside of campus, they tend to be more considerate of your time. The step team that I am now working with originally proposed a meeting time of 4:30–5:30 p.m., but voluntarily changed it to 4–5 p.m. because “we know you have two girls to get home to.” That’s important to me, and they only knew that because I told them a story about my kids.

Now, I don’t write this under the misconception that being able to tell your story is an intuitive skill. In fact, for a lot of us, it’s difficult. However, as with any new skill, it takes practice. And this is a worthwhile skill to have in your toolbox. Your students want to know that you have a story. They need to know that you “get” them on some level. The reason that I now have a dedicated cohort of supporters from the coffee time encounter is that my stories resonated with those students. They knew that I understood some aspect of their life, be it their love for cartoons or their desire to be better photographers. My story matched their story, and that made me accessible and validated everything else that I had to say. I know going forward that I can count on those students when I need someone to vouch for me and the programs that come out of my center.

Everyone Has a Story

I have done countless icebreakers for young adults where the participant has had to tell the group something about themselves. Repeatedly, I have encountered students who claim that they can’t come up with anything special about themselves. They say that they’re just “ordinary.” It’s not until I remind them that they have been on the earth for more than 18 years and it’s virtually impossible to not have something to say about almost two decades of life, that I get some responses. Everyone has a story to tell. The problem is that not everyone has been empowered to believe that their story is worth telling. That’s where you come in! When you share your stories, unwittingly you say to others that if their story is similar or better, it’s okay to share it. The “Oh wow! That happened to me too. I thought I was the only one!” moments are invaluable and are critical to the development of our students. Granted, they may be getting that empowerment elsewhere, but on the off chance that they aren’t, you can show them they matter.

Student Commons at Manhattan CollegeThere are lots of reasons to tell stories. Some do it to get a laugh. Some do it to hear themselves talk (we all have that friend). Some tell stories to pass down information or history. It’s that latter reason that will serve you the best when dealing with students. There is a beneficial side effect, though: a deeper knowledge of the topic. When you tell a story about something, your understanding of the issue gets reinforced. Sometimes in the midst of telling the story, you remember a detail that you had forgotten until you recalled the scenario for that particular story. It is good to deepen our beliefs and remind ourselves of our intrinsic values. Furthermore, hearing other people’s reaction to your story can widen your own concept of the topic. I often tell students that five people can walk into a room, experience the same thing, and walk out with five different recollections about the experience. That becomes even more pertinent when those five people are from disparate demographics, as many of our student groups are. When your recounting hits someone’s ear who is from a different race, socioeconomic status, location, or age group, their reaction and what resonates will give you a window into their world and how they perceive reality. You can’t buy that kind of access!

In the end, the world is a much more colorful place with the vibrant stories of our lives. I enjoy hearing about the hijinks of people’s youth. I appreciate anecdotes about family traditions that always seem to center around food. I respect and honor individuals’ painful histories and recognize how they have shaped the teller. I am a sucker for tales about love and romantic gestures. I have a special place in my heart for chronicles of people who triumph and overcome the odds. This is the true fabric of our society, and anyone who has met me knows that I love to add my stories to the tapestry. I believe that everyone should as well. We are all wonderfully complex beings and if we shared that vibrancy on campus, think of the wonderful communities we could build.