Solutions for Higher Education engages in deeper reflection of critical issues in the world of colleges and universities.
In Episode 13, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith talk with Mindy Benson, Vice President of Alumni and Community Relations, about some of Southern Utah University’s stories and the importance of storytelling in communication.
“Storytelling helps us shape our identities and our narrative,” said Benson. “As I was getting my Communications Master’s Degree, I learned quite a few things about communication theories about stories and why they’re important in building a shared culture.”
Benson continues with a quote from Max Depree’s leadership book Leadership Is an Art:
"Every family, every university, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers. The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one's history, one's historical context, and one's binding values. Without the continuity brought by custom, any group of people will begin to forget who they are."
SUU’s stories about Neal Bladen and a horse called Old Sorrel create an identity for the university and the community.
“The founding story of SUU didn’t become a shared identity until we had Gerry Sherratt, a former president who was an alumnus, bring it back up again in the 70s,” said Benson. “Since that time, our founding has really formed who we are and shaped that identity.”
President Wyatt proceeds to tell the story of SUU’s founding, a dramatic example of fortitude and perseverance. In 1897, the newly organized Utah Legislature called for the hurried establishment of a teacher training school to provide for the region’s emerging pioneer settlement communities.
With no time to lose, Cedar City residents organized winter lumbering expeditions and began pouring labor and resources into the project. Negotiating harsh storms while hauling timber from nearby mountains using only wooden wagons, the first building was dedicated in 1898, meeting the state’s mandated deadline. Now known as Old Main, the university’s first building stands as an inspirational legacy of fortitude, determination, and community triumph.
“When times get hard or tough, we bring this story back to remind everybody that ‘We, too, can go back up the mountain’,” said Wyatt. “‘We, too, can push ourselves a little harder, because somebody did it before us, and we can do it today’.”
SUU’s founding serves as a rallying cry for the Cedar City community.
“Stories are what bind us together and build the culture that people can believe in and buy into,” said Benson. “That’s what motivates them to do more than just the regular job or the regular part of school that they’re trying to do. Stories increase the success of organizations and make you want to be a part of the bigger picture.”
Stories keep students connected with each other throughout time. A story can unite a community under one goal and purpose.
“It’s critical that our students understand where they came from and what they can accomplish because of our founders,” said Benson. “But we don’t just rest on that story. We use it to propel our students forward. As new freshmen come onto campus, we build this narrative for them. And the more we share that narrative, it weaves them into the fabric of SUU. The students become part of a legacy and want to carry it on. That is what propels a lot of our students to become great alumni that are contributing and having an impact where they are.”
Listen to Episode 13 here: https://www.suu.edu/presidentspodcast/