We are back on campus and ready for a fall semester filled with opportunity. New friends, rigorous classes with engaging faculty, great athletic contests with wins against our traditional rivals (Go Cougars!) and other amazing adventures await.
As we return to campus for the fall semester, I realize it is time for me to write my “welcome to college” speech for the student newspaper. My task is proving to be especially challenging this year. There is plenty of overall excitement in our academic community, but how do you address it in a way that appeals to everyone?
Often in these types of speeches, we use a good story or anecdote. To my delight, a few of my friends and colleagues pointed me toward a recent article in the New York Times by Frank Bruni. In the “How to get the most out of college’’ piece, the author engages and enlightens, of course, and then adds, “Regardless of major, there are skills to insist on acquiring because they transcend any particular career. Communication — clear writing, cogent speaking — is one of them, and many different courses can hone it.
“Another of those skills, frequently overlooked, is storytelling,’’ Bruni wrote, additionally. “It’s different from communication: a next step. Every successful pitch for a new policy, new product or new company is essentially a story, with a shape and logic intended to stir its audience. So is every successful job interview. The best moment in a workplace meeting belongs to the colleague who tells the best story. So take a course in Greek mythology, British literature, political rhetoric or anything else that exposes you to the structure of narrative and the art of persuasion.”
Storytelling is a novel way to describe the skills in narrative and persuasion that a college offers. When I think about stories, most of mine are for our daughter (many years ago), nieces and nephews. The truly engaging ones have a message and are fun to tell. No doubt, they are based on the classics, such as “Green Eggs and Ham’’ by Dr. Seuss.
When I was young, books were everywhere in my childhood home. My parents encouraged me to be a voracious reader, oftentimes testing me on my comprehension skills afterward. In writing this article, I recognized more fully how I use the art of storytelling with my friends and colleagues on campus.
Bruni’s suggestion to work on the story is compelling. So how does one get to be a good storyteller? The foundation should begin in childhood, as mine did many years ago. The United Way of Wyoming Valley (I have the pleasure to sit on the board) focuses on the theme, “Poverty to Possibility,” with an emphasis on third graders reading at an appropriate age level. Joining with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, the United Way is committed to providing our local youth with access to books as a means to encourage reading. They use reading as a way to prepare students for grade school, middle school, high school – and eventually college. Together, we can encourage reading as a way to energize the next generation of storytellers.
As our students settle into the academic year, we know they are gifted in academic capacity and capability. Further, we are certain they come with a desire to do well and to lead lives of character and consequence. Our academic programs and co-curricular activities will challenge them to be good storytellers.
In four years, they will be ready for the world and will likely be telling their own story at a job interview. Can they do it well? Will they engage and enlighten the hiring manager? I trust they will. Perhaps later in life they will deliver the spark – in the form of a tale with a happy conclusion – that ignites yet another child’s imagination and inspires them to succeed.
To paraphrase “Green Eggs and Ham,” “… and I will read them here and there. Say! I will read them anywhere!” It is story time.
Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., is president of Misericordia University in Dallas.