The Importance of Student Stories

By December 1, 2015 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

At every meeting of the Trinity Washington University board of trustees, we have an opportunity to hear from students. We enjoy lunch together and then listen to their stories. We have heard from graduate students and student athletes; we have heard about internship experiences and have reviewed the posters our students presented at a national research conference. Every May, we hear from those who will be graduated later that month.

At a recent meeting, we heard from students who had received a Dreamers scholarship for immigrants. At the end of that session, after we had heard these young—and, in some cases, not so young—women speak about the transformational effect of the Dreamers scholarship on their lives and the lives of their families, there was not a dry eye in the house. Whenever we evaluate our use of time as a board, we unanimously reaffirm the value of hearing from students. “It reminds us of why we are here” is a common refrain.

If “reminding us of why we are here” were all that these interactions accomplished, it would certainly be well worth our time. Yet I believe there are at least three additional benefits to this practice:

1. It helps students to find their voice;

2. It provides trustees with a different perspective through which to view the challenges and opportunities facing the university; and

3. It enhances our decision making as a board.

Trinity serves a population, especially in its undergraduate women’s college, that is disproportionately low-income and of color. Many come from challenging home situations; some are single mothers; some are caring for other family members; virtually all work full- or part-time while attending college. They are young women whose voices are seldom sought after or valued. Giving them the opportunity to meet informally with board members over lunch and to present formally to the board underscores a point made throughout these students’ experience at Trinity: that their voices, their experiences, their lives matter. As the poet Maya Angelou starkly reminds us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Providing our students with an opportunity to tell their stories helps to diminish that agony.

Listening to students also brings benefits to the board. The expression “what you see depends on where you stand” may be trite but it is nonetheless true. Listening to students enables the board to stand where our students stand, to see the world—including the university—from their perspective. It allows us insight into the challenges facing our students as well as their creative, adaptive solutions to those challenges.

In a homily delivered during his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis exhorted listeners not to let their hearts become “numb.” Listening to our students ensures that, as board members, our hearts do not become numb to their experience. Needless to say, the student perspective is not the only one we use to approach our responsibilities as a governing board, but it has become an important component of our deliberations.

Finally, the stories of students enhance our decision making as a board. Trinity, like all good institutions of higher education, prides itself on its effective use of data in this process. Typically, when we think about data-based decision making, we tend to focus on numbers and statistical analyses—financial statements, licensure passage rates, IPEDS graduation rates.

But that decision making is so much richer when spreadsheets and survey results are supplemented with stories, and when quantitative and qualitative data are augmented with anecdotal data. While stories and anecdotes alone will never be sufficient to support responsible decision making, excluding them would truly impoverish our functioning as a board.

The noted author Madeleine L’Engle once observed, “Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” And, I would add, more effective trustees.