Cultivating Inclusivity: Storytelling To Foster Belonging and Inclusion

Cultivating Inclusivity: Storytelling; collage of silhouetted faces

Our Cultivating Inclusivity article series takes a deep dive into one of the most talked-about topics at OPEN 2022: the concept of belonging in higher education. We’ll unpack how the innovation and entrepreneurship community can further this important work.

Learning, we are told, is most meaningful when it is connected to the “real world” and students’ lived experiences. Whether it’s through a short anecdote, a reflective exercise eliciting prior knowledge, an authentic case study, or a deep personal tale woven through new material, even the most anxious or resistant student will often open up to embrace a story. What’s more, engagement is boosted, whether one is the sender or the receiver of a story.

The most gifted teacher I have ever encountered, Bob Engel (Marlboro College), taught biology and spoke in metaphors, interspersed with anthropomorphized accounts of plants and animals or vignettes drawn from years in the field. His students were not only captivated—they assimilated the complex concepts tied to his vast repertoire of stories. Generations of students laughed in recognition as these were recounted at his memorial service; regardless of their current orientation to the world, their biology learning with Bob had stuck.

What makes a compelling story? At its most basic, a story includes characters and action—and typically some tension that gets resolved. Even more, as human beings we’re seeking clues about what makes a character tick—the emotions and values that drive the action, and whether we are similar or dissimilar to those qualities. Storytelling offers connection points or moments of identification that can feel comfortable enough to open us up to the risks of new ideas, concepts, or experiences.

At VentureWell’s OPEN 2022 conference, two approaches to the craft of storytelling were presented: one describing how to teach students to better employ storytelling in their innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) work, and another looking at how to best utilize the tool of podcasts to elicit stories from mentors to most effectively reach students.

“We need to provide specifics for students on how to tell their story.”

Emma Fleck and Betsy Verhoeven, faculty from Susquehanna University, described how they have collaborated to “empower students to tell their own stories.” To them, storytelling is an essential tool to practice with students, particularly those aspiring to entrepreneurship.

Fleck, in teaching I&E students, related statistics on how early investor pitches and later product brands get much better responses when infused with a personal story. However, she personally felt unqualified to teach the principles of storytelling, so she solicited the assistance of Verhoeven to work with her students.

“We focus on pitching, but [we] don’t provide specifics on how to tell the story. If students understand basic rhetorical theory, they can develop a much more compelling brand story, which builds loyalty and engages audiences,” says Fleck. Verhoeven outlined the elements of constitutive rhetoric and the two illustrated their work via a class project, whereby students had to consider a host of factors in distilling the stories they would use to market their products.

Watch highlights of their presentation:

“Podcasts let us curate a story that’s being shared.”

Offering an entirely different vantage point on storytelling, James Madison University’s Kurt Paterson and Justin Henriques presented on Using Podcasts To Build Entrepreneurial Mindsets Through the Experiences of Professionals. Henriques noted the power inherent in students hearing stories: “When they hear a story that they find compelling—say, from alumni—and they see themself in those stories, we know that can provide a sense of belonging for the student.”

Paterson commented on how, historically, conversations with mentors focused on the work, but “to humanize the work by bridging to something that brings them great joy or pain or discovery … starts a train of better understanding the person behind the work.”

On a practical level, podcasts prove to be eminently scalable, both in terms of “who’s available and who’s willing,” as well as making it easier to present a diverse range of voices. Additionally, the recording is not limited by time or place, thereby extending access to students.

Paterson also noted another significant value: through podcasts, “I’m listening better … I’m finding the sparks in the story, the arcs in the narrative that let us curate a story that’s being shared.” That sense of curation or workshopping process, he claims, “allows you to test your audience to see what’s resonating.” By steering the conversation, podcasters can ensure that alumni have a “big impact on the way students learned and processed and reflected.”

Watch short clips of Paterson and Henriques’ presentation:

Stories… Yes, You Can!

Many of us may naturally infuse stories in our teaching; some may feel hesitant or abashed about doing so. Traditional focus has been on “the material”; don’t stories detract from direct instruction and content? Here are three antidotes to those critical voices:

  • In Storytelling in the Classroom, Ohio State Professor Lynn Harter shares: “Theory is best realized by students when it moves from the abstract to the lived, when it’s answerable to life. I’ve found that happens in and through the storytelling process.”
  • Worried About Cutting Content? This Study Suggests It’s Okay. Florida International University’s Bryan Dewsbury, co-author of the study, states: “Let’s be brave and reduce content. I promise you. If done thoughtfully, and with the aim of centering humanism, the students will be more than fine. Inclusive and active pedagogies reduce academic outcome gaps and improve long-term performance.”
  • And don’t delude yourself that all stories need to be about rousing successes! In Rethinking the Concept of Failure, Efrat Ravid exhorts us: “Speak to your people about your own failures—not just in terms of how far you fell, but how you came back. That’s where the focus needs to be. It’s not about failing fast. It’s about learning fast.”

Storytelling humanizes learning, fostering belonging and creating an inclusive environment where all students—ANY student—can thrive and grow. Find ways to weave stories—both offering and eliciting—into your classroom, so students can bring their most authentic and creative selves to the challenging problems before them. The outcomes will extend far beyond your classroom.


KD Maynard has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Frontier Set, seeking best practices to promote the retention and success of college students. Leveling the playing field has been a theme in her career, which spans a number of roles in a variety of different institutions. Previously, KD also consulted on Venturewell’s Pathways to Innovation National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, working to reframe the delivery of engineering education to undergraduates. 

This is the third in a series of articles on equity and inclusion, as raised at the OPEN 2022 conference. First we touched on the impact that belonging can have on student success, and second we looked at how belonging can be infused in the classroom. Extending into Fall 2022, we’ll be sharing recommendations of our colleagues, with regard to enhancing student belonging and inclusion in higher education. Next up: promoting inclusive engagement.

In the meantime, check out VentureWell’s video archive and resources for advancing equity for more ideas.

VentureWell Course & Program Grants of up to $30,000 are awarded to faculty or staff at US higher education institutions to support curriculum that engages students in science and technology innovation and entrepreneurship. Applications open August 22, 2022, and close November 2, 2022. There is only one funding cycle this year, so don’t delay, apply today!

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