There’s an old Native American proverb which says:
“Tell me a fact, and I will learn.
Tell me a truth, and I will believe.
But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.“
At The Stony Brook School our faculty share a lot of facts with our students. There’s a lot of learning that goes on at this place, but this isn’t all they do. We’re not that kind of school that is merely content with sharing facts with students. We encourage students to think for themselves; we give students the tools to think critically, dialogue vigorously, and move intentionally and thoughtfully toward truth, beauty and goodness.
This semester in one of our mini-courses, we’ve had the opportunity to live out the last part of that proverb: tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. In fact, we could have used this as our description of our new mini-course: How to Write Your Personal Statement. The class was the brainchild of Dr. Riley with the goal that each student would have a draft of their college essay by the end of the four weeks. I went into it thinking that we would teach some mechanics of writing and do a lot of writing. But the class turned out so differently than what I had imagined.
We did begin the class with some writing exercises. Students were asked to describe the places they had grown up in. The stories of their childhood homes gave us insight into what they missed being here at boarding school. What was also touching was that for many of our students, Stony Brook was home to them, and yet they also missed the homes they had come from, as home almost always meant family, and family was important. The second writing exercise involved asking students to describe a really bad day….without saying that they had had a really bad day. We were amazed at the stories they were able to share with us. Some of the students’ stories literally made me laugh out loud…some of them had had some REALLY bad days : missing homework, sickness, toasters almost catching on fire. (Don’t worry, that was a faculty child, not a boarder.)
Then we asked them to begin the process of writing their personal statement. Again, they produced some incredible narratives. Their stories touched me deeply because I learned things about them that I would otherwise never have known. I had the privilege of sharing in their struggles, whether it was dealing with a chronic illness, a death of a family member or close friend, or wanting to feel that they were good enough for that dream school. I also had the joy of sharing in their dreams: the pain of racism motivating one young man to want to eradicate it, another young woman who was passionate about reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet, and still others who had simpler dreams: wanting to make others laugh, or simply to live a life of deeper gratitude. Finally, some just wanted to share who they were. They love music, sailing, origami, compost, technology… the list could go on and on. What I learned from these personal statements is that each student here at SBS is unique and has a story to share.
As we wrapped up the class, I started to think about the fact that it’s the most basic of human desires – to tell our stories. In every interaction we have with another person, don’t we tell a little more of our story? And when I thought about it some more, it dawned on me that the college application process is really about helping students tell their story. And so we focused on helping the students to become good storytellers. Because really, who doesn’t love a good story?
It’s important for students to be able to communicate their stories to colleges. A solid essay can help the application. Beyond the transcript and the test score, the essay has become a vital part of the application process. In some ways, it is the lens through which college admissions counselors find out who the student really is. It is the only part of the application in which the student gets to speak in his or her own voice. And so our goal in this personal statement class was to help students not only write their narrative, but to speak in their own voice. Not the voice they think admissions wants to hear, but their true and authentic voice.
But there’s a far more important reason for students to articulate their story. It’s because students need to be and want to be known. One of the greatest human joys is to be known. When I first came to The Stony Brook School, I found myself deeply uncomfortable for the first few months. After some reflection, I realized why: it was because I had come from a community where people had known me for over 20 years. The community I came from didn’t just know my name and where I worked, they knew me. They knew that I have a slight obsession with chocolate. They weren’t surprised that what should have been a 3 minute drive to the CVS turned into a 45-minute self-guided or maybe mis-guided tour of East Setauket, Port Jefferson and Smithtown. Yes, I am that directionally challenged. I thank Jesus daily for GPS. They knew that I knew absolutely nothing about professional basketball until a young Taiwanese-American player named Jeremy Lin started playing for the Knicks. They knew that if I had a free minute, I could be found reading, even if it was just the cereal box and that this love of reading led me to convince my Korean parents that American History was not a useless major – a conversation that we’re still having. Over the next several months, I slowly started to become a part of the incredible community here at SBS and began to share my stories. Slowly, people began to know me. And as people had taken the time to get to know me, I wanted to be able to get to know students in the same way.
So it became really important to me as the college counselor to get to know students. In fact, it is a cornerstone of the college counseling program. It aligns with the vision of SBS, that school should be a place where young people embark on a passionate quest for truth, beauty, goodness and self-discovery, informed by relationships with adults of character and faith who know and love them.
Getting to know the students I work with is easily the best part of my jobs. Some are scholars. Others are athletes. There are musicians and actors. Some love rock music, while others have blasted Taylor Swift while driving with me. A few are lovers of philosophy, while others enjoy the challenge of our Engineering and Design class, being natural builders. Still others are builders, but in a totally different way. They enhance our community because they’re able to bring different people together. Some lead up front. Others lead quietly by example. Some of your children have made me literally laugh out loud, while others have left me in tears as they shared their stories of overcoming personal challenges. What I can say about each of them is that SBS is a richer community because they have been a part of it.
The SBS college counseling program will rest on getting to know students and giving students the tools to tell their story to colleges. I can’t promise that each student will get into that elite college. And to be honest, that elite school isn’t the right fit for every student. But what I can promise is that I will devote time and energy in getting to know each student, push students to realize their potential, and partner with students and families to pursue the highest level of both coursework and college that is appropriate for each student. But ultimately college counseling isn’t about the end result, it’s about the journey to finding the right fit. Armed with knowledge, through the power of each student’s narrative, I look forward to moving through this process with each of our students.