What should I do with my life?
How can I create meaning and purpose within and from my research?
How can I do research that matters in this chaotic world?
How does my experience in graduate school connect to my values and purpose in life?
In my decade-plus of teaching and advising graduate students, I have seen existential crises, like those demonstrated in the opening questions, arise often. In part, this is because students come into academe believing they must leave their whole selves at the door, so to speak. Academe largely promotes living a divided life, where internally we may know who we are, but we act out a different reality at work, such as when students pick research topics they think they should explore instead of ones that resonate or inspire them.
Everyone, myself included, at times compartmentalizes or separates within work for many reasons, yet it impacts how we show up for ourselves and with each other. In A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer notes, “Dividedness is a personal pathology, but it soon becomes a problem for other people.” The time came when my own patterns of dividedness became personally dissatisfying and limited the effectiveness of my teaching. I wanted to change myself to promote a greater sense of well-being and also to find new ways of promoting others’ ability to show up with greater personal and professional integration. Through life coaching, I found holistic tools that could support more of a learning partnership with the broader context of graduate education that had been missing from what and how I learned to advise or was advised.
Coaching promotes a collaborative relationship where I, as faculty adviser, do not purport to know what is right for students but can serve as a guide or facilitator of the system students navigate. It is a shifting of hierarchical differentials from operating within a faculty as sage paradigm to trusting students’ inner wisdom and knowledge. Through deep conversations, reflection and mindfulness activities, students discover and name their own answers to life, academic and career questions and challenges.
Here are three sample activities I have used in the classroom and in one-on-one sessions to shift my work with students from advising to coaching.
Integrating Scholarly Identities With Personal Ones
Last semester, I taught an introduction to scholarly writing for Ph.D. students. The last time I taught that course was years ago, when I was living a divided life with my professional identity separated from my inner self. This time around, I revamped the course to help all of us integrate personal values and goals into our scholarly work.
In setting up the framework for the seminar, I incorporated learning objectives for self-work as the first step to graduate school socialization in order to establish why students need regular reflection and accountability. It was a way to intentionally incorporate self-awareness into our choices about our research and what it means to us. Each week included reflection, creative or writing prompts, or small group time to process.
The first assignment was for each student to write a scholarly identity paper about their understanding of and assumptions about what it means to be a doctoral student, scholar and practitioner combined with social identities and other roles in their lives. I asked them to discuss personal values and goals and how those integrated with professional ones and their intended research agendas. Then, to foster community, I had them create a presentation for the class and asked them to bring their creativity to it.
Fast-forward to presentation day. Some students brought in personal items and mementos, such as one student who passed around class rings to mark milestones as the first in their family to earn degrees. Another person created new art to represent themselves, while someone else incorporated photographs that shaped their values and research interests. One student wrote a haiku to begin their photo book, which concluded with images of their students and why they want to engage in meaningful research and work around helping students find their path through the community college experience.
It was beautiful to witness. The students shared personal stories of struggle and hard life lessons that brought them to where they are today and fueled their research interests. In that course, we developed a new sense of compassion and deeper understanding for ourselves and each other. And the students walked away with a deep personal understanding of why they are embarking on a Ph.D. journey.
Connecting to Our Bodies
Part of promoting a whole life over a divided one means showing up with a fully integrated body, mind and soul. I used to be so out of tune with my physical sensations, feelings and inner landscape that I spent much of my sabbatical a couple years ago relearning my own self-awareness through guided mindfulness and physical activities. Now I believe in the power of integrating body connection with mental and emotional awareness in the classroom. One activity that I use is an adapted exercise from life coaching and yoga teacher training. The aim is to help students connect back into their bodies and notice their physical experiences. It also serves to quiet the noisy mind from whatever students were doing before arriving at class that day.
The activity goes a little something like this. I lower the lighting a touch. I call attention to our sitting, our room, the space around us. I guide them to notice the in and out of their breathing, without changing or judging it. Then we take a few deep breaths together before I direct them to notice various parts of their body, from toes to head. Some students resist noticing their body, so I may adapt and speak more generally. I speak slowly, with intention. Over all, it can take less than eight minutes.
We process afterward sometimes. Students often notice that this was the first time that day when they intentionally breathed or slowed down. Some notice parts of their body that they never think about. They leave pondering this new awareness, encouraged to avoid judgment and stimulated to do more intentional breathing and body check-ins on their own. Always, it brings us all together for those few minutes, which I sense fosters a feeling of community.
This is such a simple and sweet little exercise that has major payoffs for the rest of class time and down the road, including an increased awareness of their body, a slowing of breath and a recognition of their mind’s chatter. Adding mindfulness activities in the classroom, guided by a faculty member and discussed openly, serves as role modeling and helps to open conversations among everyone about the importance of integration and awareness. Body awareness can aid students in decision making, based on the belief that we react physically before our minds can register.
Coaching as a Paradigm Shift
In my earlier faculty days, deeper coaching conversations were beyond my typical advising skills. I likely sat there staring at the student, nodding in commiseration and sort of shrugging as if to say, “We all felt that,” but without resolution or solid direction. Even as a qualitative social science researcher, I thought I knew how to ask good questions and listen to the answers without judgment.
Yet one of the biggest things that life coaching has taught me is how to truly listen deeply and then ask deeper questions. By listening to students’ present issues and challenges, I watch for underlying patterns and behaviors. We talk directly about what feels most applicable and resonating to them. It is a shift from advice giving to space creating for their own exploration and knowing. We focus on what and how they want to change and do work that feels more integrated between personal and professional. It deepens relationships both between faculty and students and between students themselves.
The other big shift coaching others has taught me is that I have to do some serious, deep self-coaching on myself to recognize and set aside ego in the work with students. In being aware of ego during our interactions or teaching, it makes it more student-centered, since the outcome is not about me or what I want or how their decision reflects on me. The outcome is about how they want to live their life from a place of authenticity and personal integrity. It's about how each person wants to live an undivided life where their actions are in congruence with their true selves.
To me, applying coaching within the walls of higher education means making a series of intentional shifts to help students find the answers within themselves and provide unwavering support for the paths they choose. Coaching offers reflective tools that connect students to their internal purposes and values while benefiting those around them through their work and research. Shifting relationships from superficial to meaningful can promote greater sense of connection -- and hopefully, in the long run, the retention of students who are more satisfied and accountable about their educational, career and life choices.