I’ve just spent the last week at a conference focused on community college reform. I attended this same event last year and, just like then, I left feeling most inspired by the eight or 10 students who spoke to the 2,000 faculty, staff, and administrators who were present. Even in our daily work at the college, we are regularly reminded to bring students into the conversation, and of course we do whenever we can. Whatever your business, it’s crazy to create new programs or make changes without hearing from the people you serve, and the students at our college always have a strong opinion. But what struck me this week was less about what they want from us, and more about who they are and why they’re attending community college. In other words, they told us their stories.
Every story we hear brings us closer, and every story we tell helps other people understand us.
They were gay and transgender, men and women of color, recovering opioid addicts, single parents, and immigrants—very powerful narratives from each one. It was so inspiring to hear how they each got where they are today and how community college has helped them to find their way. I realized while I listened that knowing their story is actually so much more informative than only knowing their opinion of community college services. If I understand the road a student has traveled to get here, I’m way more likely to keep that image in mind when I’m helping to create a positive experience for them while they’re here. And in a way, knowing where they’ve been gives me a much clearer sense of why they need what they need while they’re here.
I was thinking of this on my way to the airport to fly home, and I realized that personal stories are what we all need from each other, too. We need to hear them and we need to tell them. And yet, we often don’t do either, even with some of our closest people. Sometimes we’re scared to hear another person’s story because it’s overwhelming; we feel like we should do something about it and yet we can’t. We aren’t always game to tell our own stories, either, out of shame, or a fear of rejection, or a lack of agency on our part. But I’m telling you, our stories are gold. They are a true glimpse into each other. They are the place where we find commonality, where we realize that we’ve all been frightened and hurt and dismissed. But we can spend hours with people every day and never know the road they’ve traveled.
Sometimes learning someone's story begins with asking them questions and listening to the answers. If we’re lucky, and people feel safe, the conversation will be reciprocal and we can tell our story, too. The result is usually so much more than just a timeline of people’s lives. We hear what’s important to them, what they’re proud of, what moves them, what brings them joy, and what scares them. We can get all of that in the stories we choose to tell each other, whether it's in conversation, something we write or draw or make, or even in tiny glimpses of anecdotes from our childhoods.
It’s amazing to me that we don’t do this more, because without really knowing other people’s stories, we end up making a lot of presumptions. We think we know why someone has her dukes up, or why they’re so nervous, or why they talk too much in certain situations. If we learn how they got here—and what stood out for them along the way—it’s like understanding what’s behind the curtain. Of course it isn’t easy to be that vulnerable and that revealing, which is why it’s good to start small, with safe people. But every story we hear brings us closer, and every story we tell helps other people understand us.
As I’ve said many times, we are all fairly primitive and basic. More than anything, we want to be seen and heard and connected with. One of the clearest paths to that end is to show people where we’ve been. And every story is really just, “Here’s what it’s like to be me,” so people can see us clearly. Almost always those accounts resonate and they help us take our next steps. It’s telling the truth in its most basic form—easier said than done, I know—but precious beyond measure.