What’s Your Story? A Narrative Approach to Advising

Louis E. Newman, Carleton College

When I first began advising, I didn’t have a “narrative approach.” Frankly, I didn’t have any approach at all. I no longer remember when or how it first began to dawn on me that advising was all about stories—my students’ and mine. I suppose it happened gradually, as most insights of this sort do. But focusing on stories is now so fully integrated into the way I think about advising and teaching that I can hardly imagine doing it any other way.

It is obvious that each student who steps into our office or our classroom is a unique individual. They all have some things in common—high intelligence, strong grades and test scores, curiosity, and an eagerness to learn.  But these common traits are just givens, the things I can assume when I begin talking with them. My real task is to figure out who this particular student is. What is his family background? What are her particular talents and interests? How does he think about himself and how deliberative is he about setting goals? In short, I want to know where they’re coming from—in every sense of that phrase—and where they’re headed (or think they are). And I want to find out how well they can articulate those things.

All of these things enable me to understand the context in which this particular student is making the decisions that arguably are the immediate subjects of our conversations—questions like: What courses should I take (or drop or take pass/fail), should I go on this off-campus program or a different one, what should I major in, and so on. I can’t begin to help a student sort out how to make these choices in a way that makes the most sense to her until I know more about who she is. So getting a feel for the narrative of their lives up to this point provides the context I need to help them weigh alternatives and make good decisions. They don’t make these choices in a vacuum; I can’t advise them if I don’t know that context, at least in broad outline.

That narrative context, it seems to me, is composed of two separate but very interrelated strands—their academic journey and their personal development. It is tempting to focus exclusively on the academic dimension of a student’s experience. That’s where we, as faculty, can claim some expertise, and it’s certainly where we live and where we generally feel most comfortable offering guidance. Over the years, though, I have come to appreciate how often even apparently straightforward academic decisions are informed by the personal issues in a student’s life. They may be gravitating toward a major because of parental pressure. They may be afraid to drop a class in which they’re doing poorly, because they believe that failure is unacceptable or reflects on their self-worth. They may be trying to do too much, because they have never learned to prioritize or how to make hard choices. All this comes into play, often unconsciously, in the way they approach their options. When I listen to their narrative, I can see how this decision looks to them, given their life experience and their particular ambitions or challenges. If they are open to it, I might even be able to challenge that narrative or help them rewrite it in a way that will help them sort out a challenging issue.

There are any number of stories drawn from my current advisees that illustrate this approach to advising, but I’ll offer just a few brief synopses here. One female advisee is being pushed by her parents, who are Nigerian immigrants, to become a doctor, but she has discovered her passion is psychology. Defying her father’s expectations breaks every cultural rule she has grown up with, but she can’t bring herself to keep taking the natural science courses she doesn’t really like and isn’t doing well in. Another student is genuinely brilliant but a classic underachiever. As we explore what his goals are and why he’s not doing better, it becomes clear he is attached to the illusion he is capable of doing anything. Easier to sluff off, get B’s, and believe he could have aced the class if he’d really wanted to than to give it 100 percent of his effort and risk coming up short. Then he’d have to confront his own intellectual limitations, and he’s genuinely terrified of doing that. Still another student grew up in a dysfunctional family in a violence-ridden neighborhood of Chicago. He spent his freshman year trying to figure out how to fit in in a place of such privilege and ease. The very tough exterior and self-reliance that enabled him to survive until now, and to get a scholarship to Carleton, have become the impediments that keep him from making friends, joining clubs, and, needless to say, asking for help. It takes him a whole year to even be able to articulate what he’s struggling with, much less to adapt to this entirely different setting.

In each of these cases, I got to know the student’s story, which helped me understand how they understood themselves and the choices (and challenges) they were facing. But doing this has helped me see another aspect of this narrative approach to advising. As an adviser, I do more than learn their stories; I preserve them and witness them. I hold their stories in safe-keeping, as it were. Once they have shared their stories with me, I become a safe person with whom they can talk about the next challenge, because they know I will understand where it fits in the unfolding arc of their lives.

Yet another advisee from a low-income background insisted he had to be an economics major to make a decent living after Carleton. The problem was that he was failing his econ classes, though he did quite well in political science classes. He was frustrated and angry, felt he should never have come to Carleton, and that he couldn’t succeed here. He was bitter and defensive and resigned. After confronting his resistance to changing (and after more than a few angry conversations with the mother, who believed we were failing her son), we agreed he wouldn’t actually graduate if he stayed on his current path. Now, nearly two years later, he is about to graduate with a major in political science and has a job waiting for him that grew out of an internship he did last summer. Because I know his story, when we get together now I can invite him to reflect on what he has learned—about himself and his options in life—from his experience. And I can reflect back to him what a wonderful thing it is to see how much he has grown during the past two years, how happy he is, and how proud I am of his accomplishments.

As an adviser, I become a kind of fellow-traveler on my students’ journeys. Walking alongside them part of the way, I know their gait, the particular places they have stumbled, and where they made a wrong turn and worked to get back on track. Every once in a while I get to cheer them on as they reach their destination safely.

Getting students to tell us their stories is almost always easier than one might imagine. Mostly, I think, all they need is to feel that someone really wants to know them. Because almost all students, at some point during these four years, need someone to listen and be a sounding board and perhaps a bit of a coach or mentor. There are the occasional students who adamantly refuse to let anyone get to know them, because they don’t need that sort of guidance, or think they don’t. And, just to be clear, I don’t believe in coercive advising. Maybe they genuinely don’t need my advice. Or maybe they really do, but it’s only by crashing and burning on their own that they will finally discover what they needed and so have the transformative experience that will propel them to the next developmental stage. The last thing I want to do is get in the way of their learning, even if they need to do it the hard way.

Advising well is not only about my students’ stories. I, too, am a unique individual with my own story, and sometimes it serves my advising well to share a bit of it with them. I always do so only when I have known a student for some time, when I feel I can trust them with information about my background. When I am working with students going through a personal crisis and struggling desperately to keep up with their work, I can do more than just listen sympathetically. I can tell them that when my parents were dying, or when I was going through a divorce with two young kids, I was not capable of functioning at the same level either. I had to cut myself some slack, recognize this was not the term in which I would do my best teaching or submit a proposal for a conference presentation. I always hasten to add that I needed lots of support from friends and mental health professionals to get through those tough times. When I talk about these things, students are invariably and immediately reassured. In sharing this part of my life story, I give them permission to reframe their own expectations of themselves. They also recognize that I have trusted them with personal information that most people aren’t privy to, and this deepens the trust that already exists. Being a good adviser doesn’t require us to be self-revealing in this way, to be sure.  But when the right occasion arises, sharing some part of my story can be a powerful teaching moment, one that I feel certain will matter to them long after they have forgotten my advice about what classes to take or whether to take a particularly challenging course pass/fail.

Everything I have said here could be summarized much more succinctly and elegantly in the lesson I learned from Joe Baggot, associate dean of students at Carleton, that each student deserves to be known “by name and by story.” This is what I think most of our students want—to be seen, heard, and known. It is why they are here, and it is what makes Carleton the special place that it is. It is also part of what makes teaching and advising here so deeply satisfying.

About the Author(s)

Louis E. Newman, Carleton College

Louis E. Newman, Ph.D., is associate dean of the college and director of advising at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Effective July 6, 2016, he will become associate vice provost for undergraduate education and director of undergraduate advising and research at Stanford University in Stanford, CA. He can be reached at louisnewman710@gmail.com.


  1. user gravatar
    William R. Phillips

    In narrative medicine, patient-centered care and learner-centered mentoring, we use specific skills to elicit the perspectives and felt needs of the learner/patient. Mentors can unleash the powers of narrative with strategic questions and commitment to meeting the leaner at the point of discovery.

    A fresh approach to mentoring can empower new researchers to focus research questions with personal passion to create successful studies and sustainable careers. https://doi.org/10.22454/FamMed.2018.952474

    Phillips WR. Pursuing personal passion: Learner-centered research mentoring. Family Medicine. 2018; 50:7. https://doi.org/10.22454/FamMed.2018.952474

  2. user gravatar
    Helen Gutierrez

    I am a retired Executive Assistant to a community college president and have been an Adjunct Instructor in the discipline of Business Management since 2005 when I achieved my Masters degree from the University of Phoenix in Organizational Management. I’ve been early retired since May, 2012 but continue to teach as an Adjunct presently. I’ve been fortunate to be able to teach a Human Relations/Personal Skills of Business course, steadily which has kept me in a layman type position as an adviser and counselor to my students. I do have a talent for creating a comfortable environment for my students to open up to me and tell me “their story” and solicit my advice as to the best path they should take to accomplish their academic goals; so that is my experience in advising and counseling. Your narrative and methods of advising and counseling students academically were most interesting to me, natural and what I consider to be best practices in advising and counseling. I don’t believe that you can advise and counsel a student without knowing from whence they have come. I really enjoyed reading your narrative and found it most inspiring. I am considering applying for an Assistant Dean position in our Student Services department and your best practices narrative have given me the inspiration to do so. Thank you.

  3. user gravatar
    Sara DeMoss

    This is a phenomenal article. I, like you, meet students where they are and work from there. I am interested in incorporating writing as a part of my advising practice with students. Do you have any suggestions?


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