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What is the most important story you’ll tell your students?

December 31, 2018

As the second line appeared on the pregnancy test, I felt my dreams of college washing away with the tears that streamed down my face.

I was 16—a junior in high school and had just ordered my class ring. Prom was behind me and I had been preparing to apply early-admission to my top college choice. Now, everything was different.

I traded my AP classes for those I could complete before my baby was born. In a matter of months, I received my driver’s license, gave birth, graduated from high school, got married, and followed my husband to his first military assignment in Belgium where I enrolled in the only college available on-post. It was a whirlwind, filled with emotional highs and lows as we struggled to steady ourselves on a new path.

My story may be quite similar or different than yours, but all of us can use our stories to connect with students on campus. Sharing the circumstances in which we overcame some of life’s hurdles can invite that same openness from our students. It shows that we are not an elite population residing in the figurative ivory tower: We share many of the same stories as our students and we want to support them as they work toward achieving their goals.

Move your student interactions from transactional to relational

Being a teen parent changed the trajectory of my life and shaped who I am today. But it took 15 years before I shared this vulnerable moment in my life with students. I was advising a young mother who was struggling in her second semester of developmental coursework. Parenting two young children while managing the demands of college was overwhelming and she began to doubt that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It was clear that she didn’t believe I understood her struggles, and until she trusted me, my advice was falling on deaf ears.

The impasse ended when I told her my story. She realized that I knew the fear that caring for a child at home could mean failure in college. She learned that I once had the same frustrations—thinking about friends from high school studying in their dorm rooms, while we were rocking our babies to sleep with a textbook in our laps. Telling my story humanized me in her eyes.

It was a breakthrough for both of us. I realized the importance of not only understanding my students, but also allowing them to better understand me. The relationship I had with this student changed immediately. From that day forward, she had newfound trust in my advice. She was more open in our meetings, and this allowed me to offer her more targeted support. When I reassured her that there was life after developmental math, she received it with hope, not cynicism.

Build a sense of belonging

Nearly every student will feel isolated at some point in their college career. It’s not uncommon to struggle against the challenges of being first-generation, working, maintaining financial aid, or countless other obstacles that stand between students and graduation. Too often, this isolation leads to students stopping-out or enrolling part-time.

At CONNECTED 2018, John Hamblin shared his story of being a first-generation college student who ended up homeless in college. He described how he felt like an imposter on campus until one day a faculty member engaged with him and explained that John reminded him of himself. His professor’s advice helped him to graduate within six months. John’s experience now drives his student success work at Mt. Hood. He shares his story with students, staff, and faculty. His reasons are simple:

“People’s stories belong in this space, because they are all different, but they bring us together and get us through tough times.”

John Hamblin, Mt. Hood Community College

Offer the cultural capital our students need

Too often, we hide the vulnerabilities that make us who we are. We tell ourselves the importance of maintaining the professional image we have established, or are eager to put difficult times behind us. But hearing about your triumph over those difficult times is sometimes exactly what students need to feel empowered to tackle their own challenges. Names, locations, or years may be different, but you and a student might share the same story.

Nearly every conversation about equity suggests that many disadvantaged student populations lack cultural capital. They don’t have friends or family members who have succeeded in college to show them the way.

But your story holds that capital for students on campus. Be candid about struggles you’ve faced. Whether you’re a first-generation college student turned professor, an indebted graduate turned advisor, a high school dropout turned financial aid rep: Don’t forget your own bumpy path. It could help inspire someone to persevere.

And if you didn’t face the struggles our students face? You have probably met plenty of students who have. Tell them about the others who have overcome challenges. Offer them the cultural capital they need so they can see that they, too, can succeed.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to two students who co-presented with their college at a conference. Like me, they were teen parents. Both recently completed their associate degrees and are transferring to a local university. I shared with them the same advice I am sharing with all of you: Keep telling your story. It is a way to give back to someone else who is now facing the struggles you conquered.

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