A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Dec. 9, 2010 Volume 41 / Number 3

 

From the President's Desk

Storytelling

“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

I re-read this passage over Thanksgiving. It is from Tim O’Brien’s extraordinary Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, which is marking the20th anniversary of its publication this year.

I was prompted to do so by a short statement about storytelling written by Michael Holden, an arts promoter, which Dan DeWayne, our own star impresario, had recently shared with me. This is what Holden has to say about stories:

“Authentic stories illuminate our own lives and open us to the experience of others. For both young and old, stories help determine our attitudes and shape our actions. Narrative inspires, and defines us as individuals, as communities, and as a nation. Access to a diversity of stories expands our view of the world and our capacity to improve it. In powerful ways and on many levels, we are the stories we tell and hear about ourselves and that others hear and tell about us.”

So, when Dan sent this to me, I went in search of O’Brien’s sentence, which is one of the many rich passages in a book among the most dog-eared, highlighted, and margin-note-filled volumes in my personal library. It was like greeting an old friend; I was both reminded of what has connected us and refreshed by a new context.

These observations about the power of story, the meanings of narratives, inform so much about what is one of my most important roles as Chico State’s president. In brief, it is to be a good story-teller. It is to distinguish our story, our narrative, from others. It is not simply to argue a better case, or to dispel a false or unkind narrative (for example, Chico State as just a party school), by criticizing it or presenting logical arguments against it. It is to tell a better story, to offer a more compelling narrative. Because if we do not have one, we will be surpassed by those who do.

The elements of a compelling institutional narrative are around us every day. But I was struck by a series of them in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

Just before Veteran’s Day, we learned that our campus, along with five others in the California State University, was listed among the top 100 “Best for Vets” in the Military Times. This distinction recognizes, in particular, the work of our Student Veteran Organization and Veteran Education Support Team and the overall environment here that welcomes and supports student veterans as part of our community.

In what many characterized as the best-organized Up ’til Dawn event in the eight years that Chico State has been doing these, our students rallied in defense of their national championship in the annual fundraising effort for children’s cancer research at St. Jude. We will not know the outcome of this event for a few months, but it will take a herculean effort somewhere else to prevent us from claiming a fifth consecutive title.

In as thrilling a victory as any intercollegiate athletics contest, our computer science student team nailed a final correct answer with 30 seconds to go and unseated the defending champion, Stanford, in the Association for Computing Machinery Pacific Northwest Regional Programming Contest. That win sends our team to the 2011 World Finals of the Intercollegiate Programming Contest in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in February. No one was more proud of this effort than Moaty Fayek, the chair of the computer science department and the team’s advisor, who will be leading the team to this “Battle of the Brains” in his native country.

And speaking about athletics, it would be hard to surpass the thrills provided by our men’s soccer team as they won two incredible matches to claim the NCAA West Regional championship. In the title match, they pushed across two goals in the final 3:46 to overcome a 1-0 deficit for a stunning 2-1 victory. It was their best performance in the NCAA tournament since making the national finals in 2003.

On their way to the national championships – again – are both our cross-country teams. All they did was win a 9th (men) and 3rd (women) consecutive conference championship and emerge from the snowy conditions of the West Regional in Bellingham, Washington, to qualify for the nationals. For the men and women of the finest Division II cross country program in the nation, this is their 12th and 11th consecutive trips, respectively, to the nationals. Run, ’Cats, run!

Yes, you can tell a lot about a college or university by its stories. The existence of good stories speaks to an institution’s values and goals, history and hopes. And, just as surely, the absence of good stories can signify a place without spirit or character or direction. 

Writing this on Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for the stories of Chico State and mindful of the responsibility I share with others to weave them together so that, individually and collectively, our stories contribute to who we are and to what we can become.

Paul J. Zingg, President

Note: Both the men's and women's teams finished 5th at the national championships.