Listening to Stories

I always seem to especially enjoy those final closing few weeks at the end of the academic year. Things slow down, often very fast. There are fewer meetings and events, which can mean opportunities to clear out files—and possibly a path to cleaning off my desk. But not this year. This year, I had a wonderful opportunity to connect with colleagues across the sea by attending the Celtic Connections Conference in Dublin. I was provided a window to learn from our partners and colleagues from Ireland and Scotland, and I grabbed it as an amazing opportunity to steal some energy and ideas from new places and faces.

First, I love visiting Ireland. Like many in the United States, I have direct connections back to that island. I have visited before, but this trip was designed to be different. The Celtic Connections Conference was a wonderful chance to hear about the student union ideal and work around that from a different perspective. Though their work may be guided by a different model than most student unions in the United States, there was plenty to find in common with our challenges to connect with students, build community, and shape higher education for the better. I even went to an incredible session on student development work being done by student affairs professionals in the Baltics.

Throughout my time in Ireland, I was struck by how much my curiosity about others and the world truly does impact my work in supporting communities. As I mentioned in my speech at the 2024 Annual Conference, curiosity is one of my guiding principles. Learning about other people, other cultures, history, and traditions helps me connect with others. Ireland has a great tradition of storytelling; so, for me, asking someone to share their story with you, showing an interest in them, and opening the door for them to ask about you is the cornerstone to building community. As it is for ACUI, so it is for the Irish.

But too often we are in a rush to either just talk about ourselves and not make space to have the patience for listening about the experiences and the stories of others. But as I sit here thinking about what I really learned from my trip to Ireland, it is the importance of listening to the stories of those around me that gives me the tools to build community.

Here are a few things I learned while listening to others in Ireland. The first lesson came from my first cab ride after landing in Ireland—and that was a lesson about the power of music. Talking about music, like food, is a great way to keep a conversation going and to learn about people. My driver had a lot to say about music. He spoke beautifully about the impact of losing two important Irish musicians, Sinead O’Connor and Shane McGowan, in the past year. He made sure that I was clear that their voices of rebellion and human struggle truly captured the heart of Ireland. Good thing I’m a big fan of both so I could keep up with the conversation. We continued talking about the great music from the first wave of alternative music, until I had to jump out of the car, but now laughing and even more excited about the day ahead.

Second, I learned there is no need to share every thought in my head. When you are really focused on listening, we may often be quick to interject a question, thought, or opinion as the interaction moves along. But I’ve started to learn to ask if my voice would add to the conversation. Will I really learn more with my interjection, or will I shift the conversation to me? To be honest, I can be guilty of making things all about me. I’m still a work in progress. This lesson was complemented by the tour of a prehistoric site that was 500 years older than the pyramids. Nothing like a prehistoric site to remind you that you are just a small part of a larger story.

My third lesson from the trip is more of a reminder than a new lesson, and that is about the power of laughter. I say with all humility, the Irish have a wonderful sense of humor. A moment of laughter is just as important as the exercise we all prioritize. I laughed several times a day during this trip, and a shared laugh is even better because it connects you to people, exposes yourself to others, gives you a natural high, and cements a strong memory of joy. We miss chances to laugh too often—afraid to be considered foolish or silly. Please let that go. A loud genuine laugh can improve our world.

Maybe not my final lesson from this recent trip, but the last I will write about, is the importance of learning about where we have been to understand more clearly about where we should be going. Not where we are going, but where we should be going. History is powerful because it requires us to learn about where we have been, what happened, and, hopefully, develop an understanding of who is telling us our history. Understanding the past and how it was shared with us is so important to building a path toward understanding how we can be better. We are in challenging times, but when have we not been? So, can we pause, listen and learn, and hopefully do better? Or will we repeat, perpetuate, and continue the practices that cloud and diminish the value others can bring into our world?

Summers are often a time for reflection on the past year; a time to begin planning for the upcoming year. Reflecting and projecting are important, and I look forward to doing both with my colleagues over the next few months. And I would also encourage us to consider taking, and making, opportunities to hear the stories of our colleagues, friends and families, and those new acquaintances. When someone shares a story, a joke, a perspective with you, look for that opportunity to cherish it, to learn from it, and see them. Maybe, then, they will ask to know more about you.