A few weeks ago, I had the honor of leading a small group of students through a Story Circle experience. This group of 25 Student Ambassadors was being trained through a campus-wide committee I sit on called Perspectives, which is charged with leading trainings for student leaders and classes on diversity and social justice topics. The purpose of our training with the Ambassadors was to better equip them to work with prospective students, families, tour groups, trustees, and University officials with which they do not share an identity. Their supervisors let us know that several Ambassadors had felt discomfort and general anxiety about answering questions or “selling” Santa Clara when they themselves were not a student of color, 1st Gen student, a low or high income student, etc.
I had recently heard about the Story Circle facilitation from a regional conference from a great moderator and thought this could be a good opportunity to try it out. I walked away from the 90 minute session blown away, inspired by the stories shared and on a mission to create opportunities for storytelling on campus.
The session started with a quick debrief of identity definitions, such as gender, sexual orientation, racial identity, immigration status, SES background, etc. The rest of the time was devoted to storytelling. The question I asked the group was “Tell us about a time when you realized one of these identities was important to you or was different from others.” That’s it. No more, no less. You could take it in so many ways. Students were given two minutes to share a short story and then spent the rest of the time simply listening to the stories of others. The power of Story Circles is that the emphasis is placed on both telling your story AND listening in silence to the stories of others without interrupting, starting a dialogue, challenging, or affirming.
If I’m being honest, I had low expectations for the experience. I thought there would be the typical surface-level items and that I would really have to dig to find content. Boy, was I wrong! The very first student talked about an experience she had at the Wailing Wall while on a Jewish Culture Club trip. Another student talked about a family member being murdered due to race-related gang violence. Yet another student spoke about how her great-grandparents were held in a Holocaust concentration camp, immigrated to the U.S., and adopted a French name and imagined history to distance themselves from their Jewish roots. Several students spoke about struggling with eating disorders or abusive family backgrounds.
The final student took several moments, many deep breaths, and with tears in his eyes and a trembling voice, shared that he is an undocumented student who fears deportation on a daily basis. At the end, he said we were the first people at the University to know his status. He said he wasn’t going to share, but since others had been so brave that he felt like he deserved to honor their bravery with his own disclosure. (FYI: An important piece of storytelling is the expectation that you can share stories, but not the “authors” of stories. This allows everyone to share stories that deeply impacted them without disclosing the identity of the author. This was set up at the beginning of the session so I am not betraying the students or the experience by sharing specific stories in this post.)
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. During the debrief and affirmation portion of the experience, several students mentioned that they had only shared their story with a few other people, but in this space with others showing courage, they felt they could finally be courageous as well. Two women said that they had been friends for three years, but never shared their respective stories with one another. Nearly every student thanked and hugged me on my way out.
This was such a moving experience for me as a student affairs professional, diversity facilitator and quite simply as a person, that I couldn’t help but think about where this type of experience could be implemented in our work. Res Life trainings? Orientation sessions with new students? Preparing students for study abroad of service learning experiences? My brain was firing with possibilities!
This brought me to the realization that we so rarely ask students to share their stories. We ask what they think, how they feel, what their opinion is or how they compared two sides of an issue, but how often do we ask them to share their truth? Perhaps even more importantly, how often do we ask students to listen to the stories of other students? Truth be told, in the 90 minute session I facilitated, each student only spoke for 3-5 minutes. The rest of the time asked them to listen. To listen with empathy and to reserve judgement or questions. To simply hear and believe their peers. Again, to hear and believe their peers.
Let’s start storytelling.