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Tell Your Story for College Advising Success

by Story2 Guest Author, on Aug 31, 2016 6:00:00 AM


The other day I was in a clothing store and started talking to the young saleswoman named Rebecca who was helping me with some purchases. It turned out that she was a college student studying international relations, so, of course, I asked her about her college advising experience. She said it was horrible. That's the usual response, so I probed a bit. She said that, yes, she had an adviser, and yes, she knew about all of the sources of information, but she didn't want to "tell her story" to one source of advice after another. She had told it once and felt that that was enough. She viewed college advising as a one-stop shopping experience. And she wanted that one adviser to tell her how to finish college fully prepared for a career in her chosen field. She was looking for a clear formula – just as she felt she had had in high school – to get her to the next step in her life. And she wanted to get all of her advising from one person. I gently suggested that she might want to get used to "telling her story" because we do it all our lives, and it can be both productive and fun. Every time we tell it there is something new to add and we can change not only the perception others have of us, but our self-perception a little bit each time. “Telling your story,” I said, “is an opportunity for creating your story, a moment of growth and change.”

If we are lucky, by the time we finish college, we can tell a story about a personally transformative moment that took place during a conversation with an adviser, an instructor, a grad student, a TA, an administrator, a dean or an older student. These stories describe a moment when our paths were altered, even if our interlocutor had no idea. The president of one well-known university introduced a freshman adviser training for all 500 faculty and administrators who were preparing to greet their new advisees with a personal anecdote. He was on the verge of quitting law school when he happened to talk with a professor whose class he was failing. Through something he said, the professor made him realize that staying in the program was the right decision for him. The student then went on to become the president of one of the world's foremost institutions of higher learning. He credits that moment with providing him with what he termed an "individual decisive moment." College advising is important for just this reason: it creates opportunities for personal transformation, for those decisive moments.

College advising programs are the institution’s way of offering a safe space where students are able to imagine themselves as something different in the future, but in accord with their true selves. The fundamental building block of advising is the advising conversation. Good advising conversations provide students with the space to tell their story over and over. That space should allow and even encourage students to explore themselves out loud. This is different from what we think of as traditional teaching in that most teaching focuses on the transmission of knowledge, which then, in turn, can result in a deeper or new understanding of oneself and the world. College advising focuses first and foremost on opening up space for a student to explore themselves and their personal potential and possibilities by building future stories. In that advising space, a student must feel comfortable enough to open up and give voice to new ideas and to imagine a future in which they will play a role in the world that differs from the ones they have played so far that still speaks to their passions. This verbal exploration of potential futures is a way of identifying one's essence, of defining the things that move us.

At college, it is not only essential to tell your story over and over again, but it is not hard to find willing ears. Advisers are thick on the ground. Faculty, most graduate students, and administrators spend many more years on campus than undergraduates do, and they have all been undergraduates themselves. They not only have a wealth of knowledge and perspectives on the college, but have valuable life experiences to share. Most people pursue careers at colleges because they are invested in the mission of education. Every one of them can be an unofficial yet important adviser for undergraduates.

Given this veritable and relatively untapped wealth of college advising resources on every campus, I urge every student to build their own personal board of advisers throughout their time there. Some can guide students toward courses, majors, and concentrations that reflect their interests. Others can help locate research opportunities. Still others know about global opportunities or local internships, and some can describe the value of engaging in this extra-curricular or that. Yet others can be philosophical or spiritual inspirations. If a student can be convinced to invest time and energy into finding the right people for their personal board of advisers, it will serve them well throughout their lives.

College advising should never be a one-stop shopping experience. And college students should never have to tell their story just once. They should be encouraged to tell it over and over as a way of creating their future selves and to advance their story through time. Every student has dreams and hopes. For the college, it is deeply gratifying to provide for each of them personally transformative, decisive moments. The more substantive opportunities, the greater the probability that the students will experience productive pivotal moments in their college lives -- moments in which they imagine themselves as something different in the future. That moment of imagining is the first step toward the creation of a path to that dream.

Written by Monique Rinere, Ph.D.

Author of an upcoming book on rising to the challenge of college, Monique Rinere, PhD, is a three-time Ivy-league dean who is ferociously dedicated to the lofty principles and necessary practicality of higher education. Monique graduated from CUNY-Hunter (BA) and Princeton (MA and PhD).


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Topics:college admission