Creating Serendipity and Believing in Your Students 


Brian Raison, PhD, Professor & Leadership Field Specialist – – July 2023 


Think back to when you were in college. Can you recall a time when you were encouraged by a professor (or maybe a friend)? Perhaps they said you were a good writer. Or maybe they complimented your science or math abilities.


I (personally) have no memory of anything like that. I wasn’t the best student; and I seriously considered dropping out on several occasions. I simply did not have any vision for the future (apart from making enough money to drive a cool car). But I distinctly recall my supervisor in the OSU Main Library, Maureen Donovan, who implanted some radical ideas in my head during what she probably saw as casual conversation. First, she invited me back (for all four years of my undergrad experience) as her work-study student, noting that I did a really good job. Second, she told me I should think about getting my MLS (master of library science) because she thought I’d be a really great librarian. Yes, my family had encouraged me over the years; but here was a real professional with advanced degrees saying I had potential. Wow.


Please note, Maureen said those things to me nearly 40 years ago (circa 1983-86) when I served as her student assistant. But I remember the conversation as clearly as if it were last week. I can see the room, the bookshelves and study desks surrounding us there on the third floor of OSU’s Main Library. And I can see her kind smile. At the time, neither of us would have labeled it as such, but her words created a serendipitous moment that literally changed my life for the better. She recognized some potential in me that I did not recognize in myself.


In the 2010 article, “Serendipity in Teaching and Learning: The Importance of Critical Moments,” Dr. Peter Giordano suggests professors, through their casual, random remarks to students, can alter lives and help transform identities.


Giordano reminds us that during college, students are particularly sensitive because they have moved away from parental influence and are beginning to establish their own inner authority. He also suggests that if we are attentive to this potential growth, we can perhaps make a significant contribution to their future well-being.


Giordano says we need to “be humbly mindful of the power we may exert over our students’ development, self-authorship, and aspirations.” And that our seemingly random comments (whether face-to-face, or in written feedback on papers or assignments) may have a great impact over time. Giordano calls it disrupting students’ self-perceptions; and I would expand that notion labeling it “encouraging potential.”


So what might we do? Below are three challenge activities I hope you’ll try. You may never learn if your words were impactful or not. But please don’t let that stop you from trying. The potential is there.


Key Objectives: 

  • To recognize potential in your students 
  • To deliberately communicate what you recognize, and how you believe in them 



Challenge Activities:

  1. Consider how you can identify and lift up the potential you see in others.
  1. Look for opportunities to believe in someone when they may not yet believe in themself. Then tell them.
  1. Watch Crystal Williams brief but powerful story about recognizing potential and believing in others: 



For additional study:

Williams, Crystal (2021). Stories from the Stage, March 1, 2021:


Giordano, P. J. (2010). Serendipity in teaching and learning: The importance of critical moments. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 21 (3), 5-27.