The struggle is real: The hero’s journey and higher ed storytelling.

Hiking bootsDid you struggle in school? Socially? Emotionally? Or academically? In college? High school? Or even elementary school?

If you’re a human being, you can answer “yes” to that, on some level.

Did the school help you overcome these struggles? Through knowledge? Through helping you gain confidence? Through helping you build your future?

If the answer to this is “yes,” and how strong a “yes” it is, it bespeaks your love and affinity for the school.

Hero’s journey

Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell studied many of most enduring stories to come up with a literary framework known as the hero’s journey — I teach it to classes as it’s indicative of what can drive great storytelling:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection Hero  
  • Return with Elixir

Not every great story fits this pattern, but think about stories like “The Hobbit” or “Star Wars,” in terms of an ordinary hobbit or human asked to take on an adventure, refusing it until meeting a mentor (Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the steps that followed. Some of the elements will exist in any story — even your own.

Schools and struggles

Every level of education brings challenges inside and outside the classroom, and steps in your personal journey. My own, for example:

Weedsport High School: The classes and coursework came easy. Socializing was a bigger challenge. But that’s not an atypical teenage story? As a result, my high school years don’t hold much glory in my mind.

Cayuga Community College: The classes were a bit more challenging, but I didn’t have many difficulties, except for when I suffered a concussion, missed a few days and came back arrogantly thinking I didn’t need to review what I’d missed. Bombing a calculus quiz straightened out that conceit. But I still lived at home, so it felt like an extension of high school.

The College at Brockport: Hello, struggles! Social. Emotional. Psychological. Moral. Intellectual.  The true coming-of-age story began. I was a shy and skinny teen with bad hair and acne, but until then I’d always had “the smart kid” thing going for me, but now I was surrounded by smart people. So I had to focus on creativity and work ethic as the ways to make a mark — and Brockport created an environment where you could succeed with these traits.

SUNY Oswego: Going back for my master’s degree was the most intellectually challenging and rigorous experience of my education. Which is to say: I loved it! By this time I was (allegedly) mature and (slightly) less socially awkward, so even with a full-time job, the focus on the studies themselves was marvelous and continued my intellectual growth. I really use perspectives and historical insights from my master’s studies all the time.

If you looked at my giving patterns toward my alma maters, they tend to increase in direct proportion toward those institutions that presented me with challenges and solutions. More on that after this metaphor.

Climb every mountain

Many years ago, my friends Michelle and Brent talked me into climbing Whiteface Mountain with them. It’s the fifth-highest peak in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, with the greatest vertical drop this side of the Rockies — and the reward of an inspiring view. It’s almost perhaps the best-known mountain in the ADK because it offers two ways up: by car up a winding highway or — the road less traveled — a challenging physical climb.

If you climb by foot, the trail begins with steep, craggy ascent that if you’re not careful you can burn out your legs or lungs early (spoiler: I sort of did). Then, like any Adirondack Mountain, you have a lot of trails with various levels of ascension. To finally reach the 4,867-summit, you have to do some Alpine-style bouldering scrambling over large boulders. To make it to the summit by climbing really feels like an accomplishment.

As we three emerged at the top, cars were pulling up, including one with a family from Tennessee, where a child looked up at Michelle and said, “are you a hiker?” Then it started raining. The three of us sat inside, muddy and sweaty and probably not smelling great, eating the sandwiches we packed. In perhaps a delicious irony, we ate while watching tourists enter the gift shop and emerge with merch that included “I climbed Whiteface Mountain” T-shirts. We didn’t buy the shirts; we’d earned something else.

For the people who motored up, it’s probably one more tourist stop in their various travels, not meaning much more than a really cool view and a T-shirt or trinket. To me, it was one of the most unforgettable physical feats I’ve accomplished, something I didn’t think I could do but I somehow did. It’s not a mark on a tourist guide so much as a clicked checkbox of life I recall fondly.

As a result, I still support the Adirondacks when I can, whether donating to causes in or traveling to this wonderful region. If I drove up that day instead of climbing, I wouldn’t have this connection. The struggle was real, but the journey was amazing.

Educational/fundraising connection

All these things recently occurred to me as having a connection to what we do as higher education communicators or to those working in alumni relations or development. The mountains students climb, and our help along the way, leave impressions and connections with our educational institutions.

Several years ago, one of my alma maters asked me to serve as an honorary representative for my [number redacted] class reunion. (Why remains a mystery.) My main function was to sign a letter, and they offered to write a first draft. It was a generic and standard letter, but I could modify. I thought back to the reason I stayed connected — the knowledge attained, memories gained, the friends made — and went with more of a “do you remember …” theme tied to our universal experiences.

If I had that chance again, I realize I’d talk more about the shared challenges, the trials and triumphs of college life, and how we came out as better people who were better equipped for success. About the journey to the (more or less) happy ending — that’s what resonates as much as anything.

When my friend Georgy Cohen of Oho Interactive was doing focus groups with students for a college client, some complained that everybody they saw in profiles were too perfect. They didn’t see people who struggled like they did, who needed to overcome, and how the college might play into that transformation.

In a great question for businesses everywhere, Ron Ploof has asked: “Is our product King Arthur or Excalibur?” Whatever you do or make, your product — or college — should be Excalibur, making possible the hero’s journey of your students, the noble quest that is education and fulfillment and a better future.

As I prepare to send a check to one of my alma maters, thinking of the journey and how it helped along the way, I realize that the more challenges I faced and how much the school helped has really played into why I give.

So the challenge to us as college communicators and fundraisers is to recognize these challenges. As a storyteller and director of an online newsroom, I need to convey the stories of students who are finding their way, getting better by the day, due to college experiences. For college administrators, it’s realization that fostering student success, of putting people over outdated policies, of realizing all the different journeys our students take, is a primary concern. For alumni and development professionals, it’s acknowledging that struggles are a part of growth, the building blocks to a great story, that can create universal understanding of why supporting colleges is important.

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