They’re Dying to Tell You Their Stories

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”

– C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Every year, I teach a cohort of nursing students that has to pass through my chemistry class. They are almost all freshmen and almost all females. In the laboratory sections I teach, I assign an essay for extra credit. Students read an article entitled “A Sisterhood of Nurses,” which appeared in The Wall Street Journal in 2018. The article tells the stories of six Philippine women who came to the U.S. over 40 years ago to pursue careers in nursing and bonded together as a sisterhood.

The essay prompt asks the students to write a one-page summary of the article and then to identify at least one biblical principle that the six women evidenced in their relationship with each other. They must then support this with a reference from Scripture. Finally, they are to write about themselves and their own faith journey.

Many of my students are unafraid to open up, sharing their own stories that include not just the banal details of where they’re from and where they went to school but also the tragedies, heartbreaks, and difficult family situations that have shaped them into the young people they are and the nurses they will ultimately become.

This past year our university was blessed with a record enrollment of incoming freshmen. Consequently, this class is the largest class ever. But it also has the tragic distinction of being the class with the highest rates of sadness, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, according to the CDC.

As a father of four, with two adopted, college-age daughters currently attending the institution where I teach, I have had more experience being a dad than a college professor. And while I understand that college is supposed to be a place where students are treated like adults—You’re not in high school anymore!—I’ll let my colleagues deal with “adulting” when these kids are in their sophomore, junior, and senior years. Freshman year is a transition year, and I spoil these students as if they were my own children.

I save the essays from this assignment and have occasionally used some of them (with the students’ permission) for other educational endeavors I am pursuing. In the past, their comments have neatly fit into categories that could be simply defined, such as “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “happiness comes from serving others,” or “the important things in life are caught, not taught.”

But, this semester, I was moved to tears on several occasions, not just from reading the essays but also from the ensuing follow-up conversations and email exchanges with several of my students. These episodes emphasized the importance of being not only a professor but also a father figure in loco parentis, and more of a “guide by their side” than a “sage on a stage.”

So, let me share selected excerpts, along with emails and conversations, from three students who have dealt with very painful challenges. (Their names have been changed for confidentiality.) My hope is that you would give them careful consideration and think about your own role as a professor-mentor at the college or university where you teach. If the statistics from the CDC are accurate, there are more students like these in your classes than you may realize. We have the responsibility to find out what they need. And to do that, we need to listen to their stories.

Gayle was a quiet student who dealt with some health issues during the semester, as well as the tragic suicide of her uncle. She missed my biochemistry exam due to bronchitis and had to take a make-up. She struggled to understand several concepts in organic chemistry, and when she finally came to my office, I asked her why she waited until the middle of the semester to get extra help.

[More from Gregory J. Rummo: “Get a Vision. Get Off Your Cellphone. Get to Work.”]

“You know my office is usually packed with students from class,” I said to her. “We work on homework together. There’s no shame in joining them.” She shrugged her shoulders sheepishly. Sensing that she may have felt uncomfortable coming to my office for help, I added, “Do you have a study group from our class that you can join and get some extra help?”

“Not really,” she replied. “I haven’t been able to make any friends.” When I read her essay, I realized why. She wrote:

I was adopted as soon as I was born and am so thankful for that. I still have contact with my birth mother and we have a great relationship. I am so thankful for my family who adopted me. They have given me so many opportunities and they are the reason I am attending PBA. Without them, I would not have had the free choice of choosing a college or having the drive to become a nurse anesthetist. I was adopted because my birth parents were both thirteen years old when I was born. I used to struggle with the fact that I was adopted, my birth dad is in jail because he made bad decisions so I don’t know him. My adopted dad is my dad now and no one can replace him. My parents are the ones who raised me and continually provided for me and loved me, so I don’t struggle with thoughts of being adopted anymore.

Janis was perky and friendly with a great sense of humor. She was more mature than most of the students, probably because she wasn’t a freshman. In her essay she wrote about her goal to work in facial restoration surgery as an aesthetic or cosmetic nurse. But she didn’t pass my class the first time she took it due to several personal problems, including—ironically—a car accident that injured her face and caused her to miss a week of classes. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the sudden and unexpected death of her father. He was in his forties. She really tried to hold it all together but fell behind in the coursework and scored poorly on the exams. She managed to pass the lab, but failed the lecture, even after I re-opened several homework assignments that had closed earlier in the course.

She was back in my class this past semester, determined to pass chemistry. Although she didn’t score well on the exams, she did every homework assignment, attended every recitation class, and did a large portion of the extra credit. She passed, beating her previous grade by ten points.

I sent her an email after posting the final grades, congratulating her for having finally passed. It was a long and painful journey for her. But she is a determined student. She wrote back in an e-mail:

Never did I think I would be upset about ending chemistry class with you, but I wanted to thank you for never giving up on me. I appreciate you more then you know. Thank you for checking in [on] me and always being someone, I can joke around with. There are few professors you can do that with. Some of your mannerisms are like my father’s, a tough mentality but a loving heart. Again, I want to thank you for being a light in my life. Have a great summer, enjoy the time with your wife and family. They are lucky to have you. I’m blessed you are a part of my journey. Thank you again.

I felt a reply was necessary, and I wrote:

I never forgot what you told me about your dad, and I still get misty eyed when I think of how unfair life sometimes appears to us. I certainly would not make light of this episode in your life, but I am reminded of the verse in the Bible, “All things work together for good…” in Romans 8:28. I think of and care for you as I would one of my own daughters and imagine if they had lost their father at such a young age. If you ever need help with another “life question” or anything else, you know where my office is.

Elizabeth was quiet and reserved. She also comported herself beyond her years, and I assumed there was something in her history that forced her to grow up faster than most girls. Here is an excerpt from her essay:

My passion for nursing started in 2013 when my mom had a stroke. I was nine years old and had never been in a hospital let alone the ICU. I remember being very confused and when I saw my mom very lethargic and weak, I got scared. She comforted my little sister and me and explained to us that she was going to be fine. The next few months consisted of us going to the hospital after school until just before bedtime. The nurses were so kind to us and reassured us that our mom was going to be okay.

As if this weren’t enough, seven years later she found herself back in the hospital ICU, this time dealing with a near tragedy that almost took her younger sister’s life.

In January, 2020 my sister had an accident and ended up in the pediatric ICU where I spent every night with her. At this point in our lives, my parents’ marriage was crumbling and caused a lot of stress in the hospital. I just wanted to be there for her as the big sister and to make it as stress free as I could. Since I was older, I understood more of what the nurses were doing… unfortunately we had a nurse that was not meant to be my sister’s nurse, given what had happened. She handled the situation horribly and put my mother into a rage. I’m glad I witnessed her mistake so that I will never make one like hers in my career.

We met after class, and I thanked her for writing so openly about her personal life. She filled in the details about her sister, who had tried to take her own life. When I asked if her parents were still together, she sadly shook her head. I could feel myself getting choked up and could see the tears welling up in her eyes, so we ended the conversation. Had we not, I think we both would have started crying.

[More from Gregory J. Rummo: “Helping Gen Z Do Science: Cultivating the Written Word”]

After the semester was over, she wrote in an email: “I can’t express enough how much your interest in my story about my sister meant to me. I don’t get to be vulnerable with my professors very often and it means a lot that you wanted to know more.”

A 2021 RAND survey found that “nearly one-quarter of teachers indicated a desire to leave their jobs at the end of the school year,” compared with an average national turnover rate of 16% pre-pandemic.

I feel their pain. I was exhausted by the end of this past semester, as were all of my colleagues in the chemistry department. But now is not the time to hang up your regalia.

The Bible reminds us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1, ESV). Scripture teaches that we face greater accountability. That may not be encouraging, and it may even be a little frightening if you are contemplating a career in academia. But to those of us who are here already, we are needed now more than ever to help those students dealing with pain to see God’s hand in it.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Gregory J. Rummo

    Gregory J. Rummo, D.Min., M.S., M.B.A., is a Lecturer of Chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences at Palm Beach Atlantic University and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He is the author of The View from the Grass Roots, The View from the Grass Roots - Another Look, and several other volumes in the series.

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