Graduation season again: Time to tell stories

Graduation season again. Last year, I wrote about family stories across the generations, stories about the values of education, and the experience of this defining moment that marks a great accomplishment: graduation!  This year is a bit more sobering for me. After spending much of my academic career mentoring graduate students, this year, my last graduate student will complete his degree and I will transition to spending more time on undergraduate education.  This transition reflects my growing commitment to the undergraduate experience, and as excited as I am about it, I know how much I will miss the special relationships we form with our graduate students, working so closely, one-on-one, in the lab for years.  

To make this transition more poignant, I just learned that my own graduate school mentor, Katherine Nelson, is terminally ill.  Like many mentor-student relationships, Katherine was more than a teacher, more than a friend, more like a guide into an exciting new world of ideas, a world that I entered at first with trepidation – Am I smart enough? Am I good enough? – and then with great excitement, as Katherine led me through difficult intellectual labyrinths and facilitated my growing understanding. Katherine has remained a mentor and a friend through the years, and I was fortunate enough to also become her collaborator.  We continued to write together about autobiographical memory and self throughout the years.  She has continued to be a guiding light in my intellectual journey.

And now I am graduating my last graduate student.  And I think back over the many students I have had the privilege to work with over the years, and all the amazing things they have done and continue to do with their lives.  In many ways, we have become a form of family, bonded through common experiences and interests.  We have struggled through challenges and celebrated triumphs together, both academic and personal. And, like families, we have bonded through stories.  We get together at conferences, and workshops, and reminisce: “Remember when…?” we laugh and groan.  

All of us form these kinds of groups, what anthropologists call “fictive kin.” Fictive kin families are an important part of the social relationship landscape, allowing individuals to form close ties of community and comfort that provides support in new and challenging environments.  Perhaps especially for first generation students, those who are the first in their family to go to college, or to graduate school, these fictive kin families provide the community needed to make these difficult transitions.  For those who are first generation, their families may support their decision but not have the knowledge or skills to provide other forms of material, let alone financial, support.  As each of us enters these new worlds, we need those who have made strides ahead of us.  Katherine was an amazing intellectual mentor.  But she was more than this.  Through her own stories of academic struggles, facing gender discrimination, being a returning graduate student with young daughters, being denied certain roles and privileges because of this, and yet persevering and becoming one of the most influential theorists in developmental psychology, her stories helped me understand who I wanted to be in this new academic world I was entering. 

In the Family Narratives Lab, we study the power of family stories to help young people navigate their way through the world and understand their strengths and skills.  Reflecting back on my own history as a student and as a teacher, I know that stories within these fictive families are also important. How we create community, in our classrooms and in our labs, is through stories.  

Research is increasingly demonstrating the power of personal stories in the classroom.  For example, Jane Van Galen (…) uses personal narratives in her sociology classroom to connect her students to abstract concepts like “class” and “social capital.” Integrating our own personal stories with abstract material in the classroom provides substance and meaning.  As Natalie Merrill and I argue in “Family Stories as Springboards for Learning,” stories provide entries into possible worlds, linking personal and academic ways of knowing. Especially for students who are first generation, either to college or graduate school, gaining access to this new environment, new ways of thinking, can be daunting.  Stories help us bridge this gap.  

So as another academic year comes to a close, and I face my own personal transitions within my academic fictive family, I draw on their stories.  This year will be especially bittersweet.  But I know that sharing these stories will be empowering.


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