Telling our Students’ Stories

One of my favorite moments in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (An American Musical) comes in Act I when General George Washington and friends reflect on the momentousness and frailty of leading people at war, in a song titled “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Sing along if you know the tune:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory. / You have no control: / Who lives, who dies, Who tells your story?

I know that greatness lies in you / But remember from here on in / History has its / Eyes on you.

Then at the end of Act 2 in the production’s finale, various members (Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, etc.) sing a song titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Therein Washington’s refrain enters again (“When I was young and…”). Others add:

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?

And when my time is up / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?

As a historian and mentor, these moments cause me to wonder about the question, who gets to tell your story? Or, for our students, who gets to tell their story? The answer to the latter question is, in part: We do.

There are lots of opportunities for storytelling and narrative in one’s educational career. Students often focus on getting their narrative out—a form of taking control of one’s identity, life, and career. But what about the times when others tell stories about them? This can sound somewhat nefarious, but there are many legitimate and professionally-sanctioned opportunities for people to tell those stories, through references, recommendation letters, networking phone calls, etc. We mentors, advisors, faculty, and staffers get to relay their greatness to others—to help students share their identities and advance their vocations.

For the most part, professionally speaking, this sharing comes in the form of references and recommendations. These are our formal means of telling stories about others. There’s also the backchannel—that unofficial network comprised of both deep truths and rumors, of hearsay and honest direct reporting, of lies sometimes (sadly) and important job-related information. Some of that sharing can be controlled, and of course some cannot.

Whether we like it or not, the stories others tell about us matter more than we would like. We are less in control of our lives than we would like to be. Since we cannot do anything about the negative stuff, let’s talk about what can be controlled.

To own and control our lives, ourselves, and our stories, and to get others to tell the story about us that we feel is representative, we have to craft them, in a shared fashion with others, in a way that resonates with our desires. We have to be authentic without being theatrical. Authenticity means honesty and consistency about our motivations. As mentors and references, our mission with students who are developing a vocation and professional identity is to help them find their authentic self. We help them create the story that we will eventually tell. It is a shared endeavor.

As advisors and mentors of undergraduates, and therefore as probable references and letter writers for them, it is incumbent on us to understand their whole selves. Because we tell their stories to others, we need to see desires beyond specific jobs and internships. We have to ask uncomfortable questions and make uncomfortable suggestions.

A non-linear journey

But, most of all, we have to give them time for expression. We mentors need to give students not just time, but space to change over time in their desires— this means respecting growth and the flowering of interests. A good mentor allows for this, but a critical one might get annoyed at perceived instability. When we think about the stories of our students, we will want to frame it as exploration and development. This is why the journey metaphor is pervasive but also truthful and useful. Framing a student’s classroom growth as exploration helps spin their perceived assessment failures more positively. Academic development can be a non-linear process, with small steps back taking place before gains are realized.

Our references and recommendations for students will serve them best if we can keep in mind their authenticity, their deeper identity development, and their academic arc. We must remember how they change over time, making progress that feels non-linear to others. We contextualize their best and worse moments for others.

While the grand life and death themes of Hamilton are not (hopefully) a part of what we do with, and for, our students, the stakes are nevertheless high for them. A strong start is on the line. The vocation feels like the basis for meeting a partner, having kids, owning a home, having adventures, and living a life well lived. Our stories about them can play a crucial role.

We can tell those stories honestly even while we recognize our subjectivity. We can spin them with integrity to emphasize the best that we have seen in them. Our obligation is, as always, to encourage them in their pursuit of greatness (as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Washington relayed, “I know that greatness lies in you”). We must remind them that, when they are removed from college, we will be the ones who “remember their name” and “keep their flame.”

A vocation is most certainly about one’s internal flame. We will be the ones, by agreement and necessity, who will tell their story.

{For more on Lin Manuel Miranda and vocation, see Jeff Brown’s “Doing My Job and Doing It Right, Part I.” – ed.}

Tim Lacy is a student services professional and historian. He currently works for the University of Illinois as the Director of the Office of Medical Student Learning Environment, and teaches history courses at Loyola University Chicago. He has worked in student services for most of his career, assisting students with their academic, personal, and career aspirations, including when plans go awry. He is the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), as well as several contributions to edited collections and academic journals. 

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