Allison McWilliams: Setting the stage for belonging

Allison McWilliams, the Director of Career Education in the Wake Forest Office of Personal and Career Development on Monday, October 10, 2011.

Allison McWilliams

Allison McWilliams, director of mentoring and alumni personal and career development in the Office of Personal and Career Development, writes occasional articles for Inside WFU.  This is the first for the fall semester.  In each, she shares observations and suggestions with faculty and staff drawn from her professional experience with students.

The desire to belong, to be part of a tribe or a social group of like-minded people, is part of the human condition. This fascinating piece details an ongoing study into the effects of belonging on well-being, and the powerful yet simple intervention to help individuals, in particular college students, navigate through those tough times when they feel excluded, alone, or overwhelmed. That intervention? Storytelling. The simple act of reflection, sharing, and framing has a dramatic impact on individuals’ abilities to identify their experiences as normal and connected to others’ experiences as well. And those impacts are far-reaching: “the intervention increased subjects’ happiness, improved their health and reduced cognitive activation of negative stereotypes for several years after the initial intervention.”

Storytelling is a key strategy that effective mentors use, both to share their own experiences and to elicit the stories of their mentees, as well. As this new school year starts, you may observe students who are struggling to fit in or to find their place. You may find students who are struggling with the “imposter syndrome,” that feeling of “I don’t belong here,” or “Someone made a mistake letting me in here,” or “I’m a complete fraud.” You know what’s so fascinating about the imposter syndrome? Everyone, unless you are a complete narcissist, suffers from it at one point or another. The very thing that makes us feel so excluded and alone (“I don’t belong here”) is actually something that connects us to other people (“I’ve also felt that way”).

So, how can you help your students who may be struggling with these feelings of isolation and doubt? One way is to engage with them in the act of storytelling. Normalize their experiences by sharing stories about when you have experienced similar feelings, what you did to overcome them, and what you learned from that experience. Create a safe space for sharing, ask them to reflect upon what they are feeling and why, and help them to identify some tools that they can use to work through this time. Should you feel that the student needs additional help, introduce them to the great folks at the Counseling Center.

The desire to belong is a universal feeling that cuts across class, race, gender, age, experience levels or other qualities that may otherwise divide us. Simply by being a listening and compassionate ear, you can support students’ health and long-term well-being in powerful and impactful ways.