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Vulnerability in Academic Transition

New Professionals and Graduate Students
October 16, 2018 Alaina Peters

In my first week as a Higher Education/Student Affairs Masters student at Ohio State, I watched Brené Brown’s TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” in two completely different classes: Dr. Amy Barnes’s Leadership and Group Facilitation course and Dr. Susan Jones’ Designing Qualitative Research in HESA Contexts course. I had seen the video before on my own, but looking at it in both of these academic contexts shed a new light on vulnerability.  

Dr. Brown’s TED Talk discusses the importance of trusting that we are enough. She studied “whole-hearted people,” people free of the burdens of shame (“fear of disconnection”), and found that one of their defining characteristics is vulnerability. The fear that we’re not worthy of connection often prevents us from connecting with others, and we need to believe we are worthy of connection in order to be vulnerable and achieve that deep connection with others (Brown, 2010).

I need frequent reminders about Dr. Brown’s findings. I often convince myself it’s easier to wrestle through my problems, doubts, and fears alone than bring someone else into my mess. However, when I am vulnerable about my weaknesses, I solve problems better because I bring other people’s strengths to fill in the gaps where I’m struggling. That takes emotional endurance, though, and understanding other benefits of vulnerability is incredibly motivating.

Vulnerability in the Classroom

My cohort and I watched this video on the first day of our leadership class, as an introduction to how we will be challenging preconceived notions of leadership this semester. The assumption that leaders must know it all and have everything together all the time is rooted in patriarchal ideologies that prioritize dominant and authoritarian leaders, and it dismisses opportunities for deep and vulnerable connection with others. I’d never thought about how leadership connects to feminism before, but it really makes sense. The misconception that leaders must hide their feelings influences everyone, regardless of gender, but it disproportionately impacts the gender that is stereotyped as wearing their hearts on their sleeves more often.

Watching this video in a discussion-based class also challenged me to examine how I approach ideas in class. Though I’m normally one of the first people to shoot my hand up to answer a question, I’m challenging myself to think about WHAT I’m saying, not just THAT I’m saying something. Instead of using my speaking time in class to show my basic knowledge of the readings, I can ask for clarification on things I don’t understand and give myself an opportunity to learn from my peers. I’d rather make discussion interesting than try to convince people I have it all together.

Vulnerability in Research

This video had a completely different connotation in my research class. As I watched the video for a third time, I realized that Dr. Brown’s statements about how allowing yourself to “be seen” by others not only apply to leadership or class discussions; they also apply to being a qualitative researcher. Qualitative research aims to examine the experiences of participants, view a phenomenon through a critical lens focused on marginalized populations, or deconstruct preconceived ideas of knowledge. It is impossible to completely remove researcher bias in any of those tasks, so researchers must own their biases and report them in their research in order to give the most honest reporting possible. Being vulnerable is about reflecting on how you view the world and sharing that with others, even to the point of noting limitations and influences on your work.

What Now?

Reflecting on how vulnerability is important for personal life, leadership, and academics, I’m challenged to think about how I am making authentic connections in all parts of my life. While I’ve been working on incorporating vulnerability into my personal life and leadership for a while, my next step is to be honest about my past experiences and life choices. It’s hard to share about some of my negative student affairs experiences or discuss my siloed undergraduate career, because I’m worried people will judge my passions and myself based on those stories.

Still, I know that being honest about all of my experiences is important. I need to reflect on what they mean to me, articulate that meaning to others, and trust that my cohort-mates and professors will value what I have learned from those stories. After all, the students and coworkers we will partner with in our careers bring their whole selves into our relationships with them. It’s important to understand people’s perceptions in light of their past experiences, and that starts with being honest about our own.


Brown, B. (2010, June). Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability/up-next?language=en

Alaina Peters (she/her/hers) is a first-year Masters student in Higher Education/Student Affairs at The Ohio State University and holds graduate assistantships in Honors Programming and Sorority & Fraternity Life. Alaina is a proud Brother of Kappa Kappa Psi, National Honorary Band Fraternity, and enjoys checking out local Columbus coffee shops, exercising, and writing on her leadership blog (alainaconnections.blog). She can be reached by email at peters.859@osu.edu or Facebook at alaina.peters.3.