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Christine Robinson, Western Michigan University

Christine Robinson.jpg“Trips to apple orchards are not fun for all students.”

That statement, made by a student enrolled in my First Year Seminar, a course for first-year students to support their transition from high school to college, hit me like a slap in the face. The course is typically taught by academic advisors, and I had taught the course for several years. I prided myself on making my course as engaging as possible, which usually included a fun field trip. When Daniel, the son of Mexican immigrants, reacted emotionally to my idea of a fun field trip to a fruit orchard, I was shocked. I like to think I at least have baseline knowledge and understanding about my students’ cultural backgrounds and that I am culturally sensitive when interacting with students in my advising and teaching roles. How did I miss the mark on this one? It was a wake-up call to the fact that I must constantly be aware of my biases and must continually work on expanding my cultural lens.

To be an expert on the culture of all students that advisors advise and teach is unrealistic. However, getting to know each student in terms of their personal stories and backgrounds is doable. This is particularly important as the student population in higher education continues to diversify (Cohen, Brawer, & Kisker, 2014). Building meaningful relationships with students is key, but this can be a challenge. This is particularly true when difference, whether real or perceived, presents a barrier to connection between advisor and student. Difference comes in many forms including, but not limited to, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, etc., and this difference can make it difficult for advisors to connect with their students. How do advisors, as educators, overcome self-doubt about their ability to connect with students whose lives and experiences are so different from their own? How do advisors build trust with students who may see their advisor as an authority figure whom they feel cannot possibly understand their life challenges?

A few years ago, I encountered a former at-risk youth at a student success conference for instructors and advisors—Dr. Paul Hernandez, the conference keynote speaker. In his talk, he shared his story of growing up on the streets of Los Angeles engulfed in deep poverty and gang culture. He talked about dropping out of school because school was not a place where he felt he belonged; school did not connect to his lived reality and teachers did not effectively engage him in the classroom. Eventually, however, he reengaged with school through community college and went on to earn his PhD. From his lived experiences, he created an innovative pedagogy to help educators work with students like him.

In his book, The Pedagogy of Real Talk: Engaging, Teaching and Connecting With Students At-Risk, Dr. Hernandez outlines the method for using “Real Talk” with students. A Real Talk dialogue is "an instructor-led [or staff-led] discussion based on a series of broad, engaging, universal themes to motivate student-oriented outcomes" (Hernandez, 2015, p. 18). The engaging and inspiring story shared by Dr. Hernandez at the success conference that day created an emotional, pin-drop experience for his audience and provided a stellar example of the power of a Real Talk to connect people together. Applying the method in advising and in the classroom, advisors can build meaningful relationships with students by creating and sharing their own personal stories, or those of others they know (Tedx, 2017).

Advisors can utilize Real Talks to connect with students and to tie advising content to students’ experiences in a way that helps them learn. According to Hagen (2018, 2007), narrative theory, as a way of thinking about and explaining human experiences, underpins the importance of advisors listening to students’ stories to imagine what it might be like to be that student. Connecting with students around their story creates a relationship that provides a foundation for greater learning, student development, and a sense of belonging and community (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Strayhorn, 2012). 

Another key to establishing teacher/student connection, and to motivating learning, is understanding the importance of our students’ terministic screens. Terministic screen describes a type of lens, constructed with terminology, perceptions, and beliefs, through which humans understand the world around them (Winterowd, 1985). Each one of our students will perceive the same experience differently from each other, and from their teacher, depending on their terministic screen. Our students’ terministic screens are created by their group memberships, e.g., race, gender, sexuality, religion, social status, etc. As I reflected on the applicability of the concept to the field-trip conversation, I was reminded that the phrase “field trip to a fruit orchard” can conjure up different meanings, emotions, beliefs, and memories for different people. A field trip to pick fruit meant something completely different to me than it did to my student based on different terministic screens.

For me, a white middle-class female, growing up in a stable, privileged family and community, picking fruit like apples or blueberries conjures up wonderful childhood memories of trekking out on a warm sunny day into the country to a u-pick blueberry farm with my mother and best friend where we would fill buckets with sweet, plump berries, alternately eating one berry and dropping the next into our buckets until both our bellies and buckets were full. Next, my mother and I would freeze some to be used later for pies and cobblers and would make jams and jellies to give out to friends and families at Christmas.

For my student, picking blueberries conjured up completely different feelings and memories. The son of Mexican immigrants, he spent his early elementary years moving between Mexico, Florida, and Michigan, where he and his family would pick blueberries to survive. He told me that one year picking blueberries as a teenager in Florida, even though he lived just a few miles from Disneyworld, he did not even know it existed. It was at that moment, he shared, that he realized there were two worlds—one where kids were working hard to survive, and one where kids were having the time of their lives. To him, blueberry farms represented long, hot days filled with tedious hard work for poverty-level wages—a place where his parents and siblings labor year after year, not because they love it, but because they do not have any other opportunities. To him, blueberry farms represent overcrowded living conditions where he and up to 13 of his friends and relatives, many of them undocumented, would live in a 2-bedroom dwelling with some living in fear of deportation. Blueberry farms to him represent oppression with little hope of a brighter future. My failure to consider our different world views resulted in me unintentionally marginalizing him further.

The other side of the concept of terministic screens is that when an individual assigns meaning to certain terms or phrases, at the same time that person disregards, discounts, or overlooks other possible meanings. For instance, Daniel needed to be offered another construct around the idea of a trip to an apple orchard, just as I needed to expand my understanding of the same phrase by considering his experiences. This intentional exercise pushes us out of our tendency to default to dualistic thinking patterns where we seek to make sense of our world by categorizing things in an either/or fashion. For Daniel, he could experience growth by understanding that a field trip to a fruit orchard could be a positive experience or at least something in between the two extremes of his and my experiences. For me, my growth could come from reflecting on the fact that there could be a variation of emotions around a field trip, depending on whose experience it is.

My First Year Seminar students and I did go on the field trip. We did not pick apples, however. Rather, we puzzled our way through a corn maze, experienced a hay ride, drank cider, and ate doughnuts. Daniel laughed, fellowshipped with classmates, and had a great time. I reflected appreciatively on the opportunities I have to enjoy fruit like blueberries and apples with a new thankful heart for those who pick the fruit I easily purchase at my local grocer. Daniel experienced an orchard in a new positive way, and I experienced it in a new reflective way, both of us expanding our terministic screens around the concept of the field trip.

Since that semester, I have asked myself, “What other things do I do or say that disregard my students’ terministic screens and lived experiences, and how can I be intentional about making sure my students feel respected and understood in my office and classroom?” I realize this involves continual self-reflection, intentional learning about the cultures of my students and about alternate techniques and pedagogies to connect and engage with students from all backgrounds. It involves implementing strategies to build meaningful relationships with each student whenever possible in order to connect with and engage them so that they feel comfortable sharing their stories with me. Their stories help me to anticipate how they will perceive advising and classroom lessons and activities based on my understanding of their terministic screens.

It is when we are exposed to different that we grow. I am so thankful that I went to that student success conference where I met Dr. Hernandez and began to understand the concept of terministic screens, and that I learned the technique of Real Talk for effectively advising and teaching across differences. I am also grateful to Daniel for helping me expand my lens and challenging my worldview by reminding me that “Trips to apple orchards are not fun for all students.” This advisor and teacher, at least, still has so much to learn, and I am looking forward to the challenge and blessing of that continued growth with each new student whom I am privileged to know.

Christine Robinson
Director of Academic Advising and Admissions
College of Education and Human Development
Western Michigan University
[email protected]


Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cohen, A., Brawer, F., & Kisker, C. (2014). The American community college (6th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hagen, P. L. (2007, Sept). Narrative theory and academic advising. Academic Advising Today36(2). Retrieved from https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Narrative-Theory-and-Academic-Advising.aspx

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

Hernandez, P. (2015). The pedagogy of Real Talk: Engaging, teaching, and connecting with students at risk. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students' sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.

TEDx. (2017, June 22). Educator training reimagined through real talk | Paul Hernandez | TEDxTraverseCity [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IH9AruhN4X4

Winterowd, W. R. (1985). Kenneth Burke: An annotated glossary of his terministic screen and a “statistical” survey of his major concepts. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 15, 145–177.

Cite this article using APA style as: Robinson, C. (2019, March). The power of story to engage, advise, and connect. Academic Advising Today, 42(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2019 March 42:1


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