Writing Your Semester Story

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This activity is inspired by Matthew Dicks’s excellent book, Storyworthy. Dicks is a Moth Storytelling champion (you can view some of his performances HERE) and his book is a collection of habits, insights and techniques that he has developed in the course of becoming a master storyteller. One of my favorite parts of Storyworthy is chapter 7, in which Dicks argues that all great stories can be condensed to a five-second moment in a person’s life. He illustrates this point with an example from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. Most people would say that the movie is about dinosaurs, but Dicks persuasively argues that the movie is really about the realization by paleontologist Allen Grant that he does in fact love children and wants to have children with his partner, paleobotanist Ellie Sattler. The dinosaurs may get audiences to come to the theater, but “deep in your bones, you’ll love the story because it wasn’t about dinosaurs. It was about transformation and love.” (107)

I try to convince my students that the way most of them describe their semesters misses the point of the story. In response to the question, “what are you doing in your first semester in college” they will probably list their courses, their intended major, involvement in sports and other key activities, and perhaps their residence hall. This is the equivalent of “Jurassic Park is a movie about dinosaurs.”

To help them better articulate and tell their story of their first semester in college, I have them complete the following activity in one of our last class sessions. It is designed to work with the Fall Experience Journal assignment, but other journaling activities done over the course of the semester would likely work as well.

STEP 1: Review your journal entries over the course of the last semester. Select 6-10 entries that, in retrospect, seem the most meaningful or impactful. These entries need not be something that you would highlight on a resume or share with an employer/admissions committee. They could be fleeting moments, private realizations, or seemingly random occurrences that take on significance only through the benefit of hindsight. Remember, we are looking for “story-worthy” moments not “resume-worthy” accomplishments.

STEP 2: Ask yourself, is there a five-second story contained in one of these entries that illustrates a broader process of discovery, transformation, or growth? If you have decided on a new academic path, can you pinpoint the assignment, reading, or conversation that switched on the lightbulb in your head? If you feel that you have come into your own as an independent adult, is there a moment when that transformation became apparent?

STEP 3: Using the entries identified in Step 1 and the five-second story identified in Step 2 (if you were able to find one), write a 3-5 sentence story about your first semester in college. For example:

“I come from a very close-knit family and community and have spent much of my first semester in college (unsuccessfully) trying to recreate that same sense of home here on campus. I’ve been homesick a lot and often wondered if I’d ever fit in or asking if I made a mistake in moving across the country to study here. A few weeks ago, I spent the day in DC with my roommates and a couple of classmates. We had a wonderful time, and on the train ride back to campus I felt truly happy for the first time this semester. I probably won’t be able to create the same sense of “home” here on campus that I had growing up, but that’s okay. Home will always be there but I also now have the opportunity to build a new home here.”

OR

“From an early age, my parents told me my job was to get into a top college, so I spent all of my time and energy on pursuits that would make me a more competitive applicant to an admissions committee. This past semester, while school work has been great, I’ve been failing at ‘Adulting 101’: missed appointments, poor eating habits, and a ruined load of laundry (nobody told me you couldn’t dry sweaters – my mom always did my laundry growing up!). These failures have been really humbling but they have helped me realize that college isn’t just about grades but about becoming an independent adult.”

STEP 4: Share your story with a partner.