Student Affairs Storytelling

A little over a year ago, my colleague Larry McAllister II and I crafted a presentation called “Telling Your Story” designed to benefit our student organizations and to help them market themselves.  I was inspired by Tim St. John’s  Student Affairs feature post on Being a Steward in Student Affairs to dig up this conversation and contemplate how storytelling can affect our profession.  Tim asks the question: how we can increase the student affairs brand?  Storytelling should be part of the answer.

Our “Behind Every Volunteer is a Story” Campaign

 To me, storytelling doesn’t mean sitting around a campfire and using exaggerated voices, gestures, and sound effects.  It means finding a way to articulate your experience that connects to your audience.  Sharing student affairs stories with your friends might involve some exaggerations and dramatic “#saproblems”.  Sharing a student affairs story with a faculty member might involve showing data to support it.  Different audiences require different stories.

 One of my favorite parts of Tim’s post stated, “If you had no notion of what student affairs was and searched #sachat on Twitter, viewed job postings, visited our blogs, or read any student affairs division website, what would you find? The only consistent thing you would see is inconsistency.”  While I find much value in consistency, I also find the value in inconsistency (hear me out).  Each of us has our own student affairs experience which can contribute to the larger conversation about the student affairs brand. My experiences shared on Twitter about Rutgers Changemakers Week or displaying a training with my students are just two small pieces of the student affairs puzzle.  We’re all one brush stroke on the larger canvas.  We shouldn’t all have the same canned speech about the definition of student affairs, but we should all consider the importance of conveying the same message in our personal stories.

What I love most about storytelling is that stories can develop relationships with others based on shared interests and common ground. By sharing your story, you create a connection with your audience that facilitates familiarity and comfort.  When you share your story, you may find others who have similar experiences to you, and they feel automatically more invested because they can relate to what you have been through.  TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie shared his story about creating connections when he met a woman in an airport who was wearing TOMS.  When he asked her about the shoes, she volunteered the TOMS story and relayed it as if it were her own story, saying “When I bought this pair of shoes, they actually gave a pair of shoes to a child in Argentina.  And there’s this guy who lives in Los Angeles who went to Argentina on vacation who had this idea – I think he lives on a boat and he was once on the Amazing Race TV show – and the company is wonderful, and they’ve already given away thousands of shoes!”.  Obviously, Blake was able to create a connection with his audience to the point where she adopted the story as her own.  An extreme example, but stories provide a connection that a mission statement cannot.  As you tell your story, you will have multiple audiences: faculty, friends and family, complete strangers, blog readers, etc.  It is up to you to decide how you will inform your audience.

Tim’s post started the conversation and it is up to the rest of us to continue it.  While storytelling can be valuable to create connections, it is certainly not the only thing that will keep our profession going.  We also need to take a hard look at student affairs theory, research, data, and so many more pieces of the puzzle.  This is the conversation that needs to be on the radar for student affairs professionals today and in years to come.




2 thoughts on “Student Affairs Storytelling

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, and I wholeheartedly agree that storytelling is a key element of the student affairs profession. The uniqueness of our individual stories reflects the uniqueness of the varied campuses where we work. But, it we were to look at all of the stories that are shared from all of our different campuses as data, and really analyze them, i don’t think we’d see inconsistency, but instead we might notice some common threads. Those threads are what stitch us together as a profession. Those threads are reflected in the documents that (hopefully) guide our work with students (e.g. Student Personnel Point of View, Student Learning Imperative, Learning Reconsidered, and Learning Reconsidered 2).

    We need to be able to tell our stories, but we also need ways to talk about our work beyond stories that are engaging. We need to document those stories, and view them as pieces of an ever-growing dataset, so that we can summarize and analyze that data, and compare that data to what we’re called to do in our professional and foundational documents. The stories are important to our identity as a field, but we need to use them for a greater value and look at them as part of our assessment and evaluation efforts.

    Thank you for sharing this post. You’ve gotten me thinking about some ways we can approach assessment through qualitative lenses.

  2. Hi Brian, thanks so much for commenting. You make some great points, and I really appreciate your thoughts on analyzing individual stories using common threads. Your keen sense of storytelling assessment would definitely be useful for me, and I am sure it would be beneficial to many other practitioners out there. The idea of using Learning Reconsidered and other documents to match up our stories is a great one. Tim St. John is hoping to continue this conversation about storytelling/branding and we hope that you would be interested in joining and providing this perspective.

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