Sometimes It’s the Small Things: The Power of Chats

David Crowley talks with student Maria Gaughan about the formative power of small conversations as part of a series in which faculty members interview students about vocational exploration.
David Crowley

Last summer I accompanied a group of 20 college students on a vocation-focused overseas trip. Compounding my fear of losing either the students themselves or their voluminous documentation (so many COVID test results, health forms, and printed itineraries!) was the fact that I did not know most of these students; they were members of two COVID-disrupted cohorts of Assumption University’s SOPHIA program, a yearlong vocational discernment experience for sophomores that culminates in a trip to Rome. I had not served as a SOPHIA mentor for these students, and I had never met most of them through advising or a class, so they were strangers to me…and I was a stranger to them.

Maria Gaughan

One student whose reputation had preceded her was rising senior Maria Gaughan. I had heard that Maria was an excellent student who was doing impressive research with one of my colleagues in the biology department. I was looking for allies on this trip and jumped at the chance to speak with Maria on the bus ride to the airport. This became the first of many fruitful conversations for us, but, as I have come to discover, I was just the latest of Maria’s formative conversation partners. Last fall, I invited her to join a student panel at our NetVUE regional gathering on mentoring in the sciences. At this event, she caught the attention of many participants, including the editor of this blog. What follows are excerpts of Maria’s reflections on seemingly small mentoring moments with big vocational impacts–what she calls “chats.”

The first of Maria’s reflections concern chats with her biology professor during the second semester of her first year:

​​So we would go and chat with her and kind of talk about what our lab report looked like, how our experiments were going and that type of thing. She was really good at not making it just about that, though. She would ask us how our week was going and about what we were planning on doing [with our education], you know, like most faculty do: “What’s your name? What’s your major? What are your future plans?” But often they never bring it up to you again. She was very different. She always asked and listened and responded, “oh that’s cool!”

She was very supportive and an outlet for me; [she was] the first person I had that laid the groundwork for what was expected for [me] here in the sciences and, again, she would chat with me and it made me feel so welcome. She made me realize that there are people here that appreciate what I can do and will help me and talk to me and not make me feel like I’m like a burden on them. I think that it was the first time that I saw Assumption as a place that I would want to stay.

This same professor encouraged Maria to become a peer tutor in our Academic Support Center (ASC), a role that Maria has excelled in for the past three years. She shared with me how her chats with the ASC director have impacted her personal growth and discernment of a potential career in academia:

With him, it is friendly chatter; he just says anything that pops into his head and then you just are like, “Yeah.” He makes it feel so comfortable for you to tell him anything and everything, and it’s not just the tutors but anyone that goes into the ASC. They feel like they can say whatever needs to be said and ask whatever they need to ask, and I think that’s incredible. I don’t think anyone feels stigmatized being in our tutoring center–he does a very good job of making that not the case. He makes everyone feel welcome, feel appreciated and feel like their struggles are valid. 

[My experiences in the ASC] allowed me to think (again) about being a teacher or a professor; I always wanted to do that even in high school, but I didn’t feel like I was capable of it. I didn’t think that I was smart enough to explain things to people. So I [thought] that’s just not something that I’m good at, but I never really gave myself the opportunity to try it. So both [my biology professor] and [the ASC director] pushed me and allowed me to become more comfortable in that role. 

I first met Maria last summer when we sat near each other on the bus to the airport. Here are Maria’s reflections on our first of many wonderful chats:

I was sitting in the front of the bus because I get carsick, and you’re sitting in the front, and I remember you just turned to me and started asking questions about myself–you didn’t have to do that. You could have just sat there and I could have just sat there on our merry way to Rome, but you honestly [made] the perfect start to that trip because I didn’t know many other students or what I [was] getting myself into. At that time I was also really stuck about what I wanted to do [after graduation]. What can I do? What should I do? Like all those things were going around in my head, and then you kind of just popped out of nowhere–a science guy–and it was just, I don’t even know how to put it, it was just perfect timing. Our first chat made me feel a lot more comfortable. 

Throughout the rest of the trip, it was just us getting to know each other more, and then I remember the last morning we went and got coffee with a smaller group of people, and we just had a full-on conversation about everything that was going on with me. I was literally like, “I don’t know what I’m doing; I don’t know what I want to do; I don’t even know how this goes.” And you somehow managed to make that make some sense. I didn’t really necessarily do that with anybody else because I was so self-conscious about sounding stupid and saying the wrong thing. I just didn’t have those conversations with other people. Because even people that I was supposed to be having those conversations with I just felt like they would think that I thought too highly of myself to do those things. So I just let it all out and then you just gave me your two cents, and it really was the first honest conversation I’ve had with someone that I didn’t feel I needed to censor what I was saying. I was just able to say what I needed to say, and that conversation…when I went home and I was like, “Okay, I can do this.”

Maria Gaughan, NetVUE regional gathering

Many readers will appreciate how Maria’s comments are representative of many undergraduates: hopeful yet anxious; talented yet uncertain; searching yet afraid to be vulnerable. Maria reminds us never to underestimate the potential impact of small mentoring moments. My colleagues and I did not set out to impact Maria’s vocational discernment process when we “chatted” her up in office hours, at the tutoring center, on a bus, or at a cafe in Rome. Yet how many of our students have been and could be assisted on their journeys simply by our thoughtful questioning and attentive listening? We certainly help our students discover who they are through formal mentoring programs, guided retreats, and reflective class assignments, but we might have our greatest impact on promoting belonging, encouraging discernment, and finding meaning through honest, authentic “chats.”

For further reading, see Jason Mahn’s interview with activist Dezi Gillon, Hearing the Call to Action.

David Crowley is a professor of biology at Assumption University, where he also serves as the director of ASPIRE (Alumni-Student Partnerships in Reflective Engagement) and the associate director of the Center for Purpose and Vocation.

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