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Voices of the Global Community


Eileen Snyder, Georgia Southern University
Leana Zona, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Leana Zona.jpgEileen Snyder.jpgStorytelling is Normalizing

Our students want to tell us who they are and why returning to college is important. As academic advisors, we can relate to the many nuances of a life lived in pursuit of something that until now has been a journey delayed. We listen to stories that highlight the vulnerabilities and shortcomings that our students choose to share. It is their emotional unpacking. It is how they interpret their world. Advisors have a responsibility to respond with compassion and truth. Buchanan (2013) tells us that “a story is a journey whose beginning and end you can see” (para. 10). For many of our students, it is an arduous journey of self-discovery predicated on competing demands in their personal and professional life. Stories have a powerful role to “clarify, mollify, unite, inspire, and stir to arms” (Buchannan, 2013). Ultimately, our students’ stories become a powerful resource in which the momentum gained is fueled by the desire for achievement.

Most advisors think of a resource as something that is external: typical things such as tutoring, counseling, and a variety of workshops designed to meet the needs of our students on some level. But as we can learn from scholars such as Hagen (2018), storytelling is an internal resource that is just as powerful, a resource which can be summoned to define the parameters of a student’s needs beyond the basic navigational tools. Storytelling is a resource that is never depleted, and it goes deeper and personalizes the experience in such a way that the student feels in control of the challenges and changes to, in hope, normalize their journey.

Storytelling is Developmental

Storytelling is a developmental process for our students. It most closely resembles the theory of self-authorship, which “emphasizes the development of an individual’s capacity to balance critical evaluations of information, personal beliefs and values, and relationships with others when setting goals and taking action” (Schulenberg, 2013, p. 121). Self-authorship promotes self-awareness very much like the narrative function of storytelling, in which the student helps us understand their worldview by articulating how they successfully navigate the challenges and obstacles that until now prevented them from achieving their higher education goals.

In practice, Appreciative Advising is one example of an approach that encompasses an environment to allow storytelling to occur. Six phases are used to identify the lifecycle of advising and can be summarized as the “intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials” (Appreciative Advising, n.d.). Storytelling moments occur both in the Disarm phase, where students and advisors are building rapport in a safe and welcome space, as well as in the Dream phase, where the advisor inquiries about the dreams, values, and futuristic goals of students. Further, advisors have an opportunity to resurface those conversations in the Deliver phase, where “the student delivers on the plan created during the Design phase and the adviser is available to encourage and support students” (Appreciative Advising, n.d). The Deliver phase also encompasses a foundation for self-authoring. As Baxter Magolda (2009) conjured, students who display self-authorship are “able to critically analyze and evaluate information and expectations from external sources, compare perspectives with their internally generated beliefs, cope with ambiguity and choose wise courses of actions” (p. 2).

Advising environments allow for this internal reflection, critical analyzing, and decision making. Therefore, the academic advisor must be complicit in providing the opportunity and environment for storytelling to occur and encourage our institutions to do the same. In fact, Hagen’s (2018) The Power of Story: Narrative Theory in Academic Advising confirms that story should be a fundamental piece of advisor education. Hagen’s work lists four outcomes of narratological theory, including awareness of the power of story, awareness of the need to adopt a stance of reverence toward story, awareness of the importance of the quest for meaning, and awareness of the need to remain skeptical of being dominated by method (p. 115). Hagen demands that advisors be taught narratological theory not as a nod to retention: “the rewards are not fact, predictability, and control, but well-being, meaning and beauty” (Hagen, 2018, p. 125).

Storytelling is Persistence

Universities like to capture student stories, and they are well positioned to facilitate storytelling first as a recruitment tool and then as a function of persistence. Students' stories are posted on university websites and published in alumni newsletters. In practice, storytelling and student personas can be a method of recruitment and relational marketing strategies to encourage students to explore degree program offerings and the institution. East, Jackson, O'Brien, and Peters (2010) suggest that “the relating of personal stories to interested listeners in an affirming and accepting environment can provide the foundation for the development of resilience” (p. 23).

Ingrained in resilience could be the potential of storytelling to impact student persistence for advisors and advising centers as well. Storytelling as a method of persistence can be used in one or two ways: using student stories to motivate other students with similar perceived experiences to move forward in their educational journey or used by advisors with the storytellers to encourage self-authorship. Lindgren and McDanie (2012) discuss the experience of storytelling online and identify that an interactive storytelling experience is characterized by the ability to share personalized interactive experiences with narrative and agency. Agency in storytelling encompasses the ability of shaping student learning through motivation. As Lindgren and McDanie (2012) further theorize, “People are more driven to achieve the agendas they set for themselves. Feelings of agency will often lead people to work harder and to persevere when confronted with challenges” (pp. 344–355).


Advisors can promote an environment of storytelling in each meeting with advisees. Open-ended questions allow for the conversation to begin; however, advisors like to take it a step further. We listen, digest, and relay their stories. We ask them how we can aid in being an advocate for them and internalize their stories in order to further their persistence. And last, we consider developing student stories for recruitment by posting them on our center’s web page or working with a marketing team to use them on a larger scale. 

Here are some suggestions for recruiting and sharing student personas with the campus and external community:

Curate: Use a web-based tool such as Campus Labs or Google Forms to create a survey for interested students to use to submit their story and identities. Before creating, consider questions such as: What is your major? What inspired you to be here? Why this major? What student identifiers describe you (first-generation, veteran, non-traditional, etc.)? Ensure you include a disclosure form that is in accordance with your university policy.  If you are not fond of web-based tools, consider using social media, one-on-one conversations, or group meetings with students to listen to their story and guide them in writing that narrative. One example of how to do this may be found on the Georgia Southern University website.

Write: Review the story submission and craft how it will be displayed. For example, one could create a colorful PDF with the text and add in transitional phrasing and sentences. Or, if your institution has a website supported spotlight feature, consider working with your staff to re-work your website to include personas as spotlights, such as in the Student Success and Empowerment Initiative at the University of Utah.

Share: Share the story with the student for their review.

Brand: Collaborate on campus with your Career Center or Marketing Team to curate a personalized headshot photoshoot for each student to include on their story. Similar styling of photos can assist in making the page more appealing and relatable at first glance.

Promote: After the story is crafted and approved, share the story with the student and promote it through your website, newsletter, or on a larger campus scale.

Reference: Finally, reference these stories with prospective students and continue to connect with the students who shared their stories to reference their own motivational experiences to push them along a path to persistence.

Eileen Snyder
Academic Advisor
College of Science and Mathematics
Georgia Southern University
[email protected]

Leana Zona
Senior Program Manager
Office of Distance Education
UNC Charlotte
[email protected]


Appreciative advising (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.appreciativeadvising.net/

Buchanan, L. (2013, October). Both simple and true: The secrets of effective storytelling. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/magazine/201310/leigh-buchanan/the-moth-storytelling-secrets.html

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2009). Promoting self-authorship to promote liberal education. Journal of College and Character, 10(3). DOI: 10.2202/1940-1639.1079

East, L., Jackson, D., O'Brien, L., & Peters, K. (2010). Storytelling: An approach that can help to develop resilience. Nurse Researcher, 17(3), 17–25. Retrieved from http://www.uws.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/132715/Storytelling.pdf

Hagen, P. L. (2018). The power of story: Narrative theory in academic advising. J. Givans Voller (Ed.). Manhattan, KS: NACADA.

Lindgren, R., & McDanie, R. (2012). Transforming online learning through narrative and student agency. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(4), 344–355.

Schulenberg, J. K. (2013). Academic advising informed by self-authorship theory. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (1st ed., pp. 121– 137). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Snyder, E., & Zona, L. (2019, June). How advisors and their institutions can use storytelling as a renewable resource. Academic Advising Today, 42(2). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 June 42:2


# Tameka
Thursday, July 11, 2019 2:50 PM
I truly enjoyed this read! The art of storytelling is near and dear to the Poet, and also the avid reader in me. I joined the Appreciative Advising community, and I love how this article highlights the importance of this approach.

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