The Lightbulb Moment Story Initiative invites the university community to reflect on their interests and experiences as they share the unexpected insights that have illuminated their paths.
We believe in the power of storytelling to connect communities and enable new ideas. The Lightbulb Moment Story Template provides a framework to share your professional story that can enable students to build confidence in the exploration of opportunities by contextualizing failure in the narrative of your success and charting pathways through the unknown.
Continued below the stories.
The Lightbulb Moment Initiative
An Integrated Approach to Outreach
Originally intended as an approach to publishing student stories in partnership with our campus communications team, the Lightbulb Moment has since expanded into all aspects of our outreach efforts and continues to gain momentum in the campus community.
We initially produced a video series and published articles on the Lightbulb Moment story template, which recenters narratives of success on the moment of insight—foregrounding the unknown and highlighting the moment when doubt becomes action. For these pieces, we invited the university community to reflect on their interests and experiences as they share the unexpected insights that have illuminated their paths. These narratives shifted focus away from outcomes, highlighting process and individual growth—showing the typically more circuitous and failure-marked paths to success.
In complicating the linearity students often imagine in narratives of success, these stories provide pathways to belonging that allow students to explore potential identities in new contexts while taking risks in the engagement of new ideas. This approach to storytelling has also been integrated into our program assessments, events and resources. Our website continues to extend the reach of our original effort by housing the content produced with our communications team in addition to stories shared through our program assessments.
As students and their project mentors submit their final reports and program survey online, they are invited to respond to an optional Lightbulb Moment story prompt: “Share a story about a moment that changed the way you think about who you are and/or want(ed) to be (a “lightbulb moment”) when your way forward was illuminated by new insight.” If either submits a story, we share it with the other and ask permission to publish the story on our website.
Embedding the prompt in the program survey has provided a mechanism for sustaining these conversations, and we further encourage discussions about uncertainty and failure by allowing students to submit a reflective essay in lieu of a final project report. The reflective essay option provides students with the opportunity to explain what they learned—even if their project did not go according to plan. These essays often include components of a lightbulb moment story and serve to reinforce our program’s prioritization of learning over project outcomes.
From the time students apply for funding from our grant program, they are encouraged to reflect on their learning goals and asked to provide statements about their professional learning objectives in their proposals. Project mentors are asked to explain how they plan to support their mentee’s learning goals as they provide their endorsements, and our review criteria emphasize these aspects of a student’s application.
Pathways from Opportunity to Engagement
Celebrating the impressive accomplishments and exciting project outcomes of the undergraduates who engage in research and creative work is not only a well-established practice with potentially confidence-building benefits for students and the broader campus-community but also serves a central role in many outreach strategies to broaden participation and advance equity.
In print, websites, social media and events, our undergraduate research programs frequently highlight student stories that feature their success and offer encouragement to their peers—often inviting students to speak to their experience in information sessions and presentation events. We spotlight exceptional outcomes and invite students to realize the transformative benefits of this high-impact practice with snapshots of potential future selves.
As powerful and empowering as these stories can be, the way we frame the narrative of undergraduate engagement may also reinforce barriers to participation embedded in our campus cultures that impede inclusion and the advancement of equity. To students with less-than-perfect academic records, these presentations of success can leave little room for failure—and space for belonging in the academic community.
In her experience of “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Stereotype Threat,” Dr. Callie Womble Edwards points out that “in higher education, we use the term ‘scholar’ to refer to someone that has accomplished a significant feat that moved our field forward,” reflecting that “while victorious instances should certainly be celebrated, exhibiting these moments exclusive of accompanying missteps perpetuates the falsehood that perfection is possible.” If our outreach mirrors the broader culture of higher education, we risk excluding students experiencing imposter syndrome and stereotype threat—phenomenon “connected to the fear of being perceived as a failure.”
The Council on Undergraduate Research’s reframing of our work as “fundamentally a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning” demonstrates a shift in thinking away from project outcomes, emphasizing “process” and highlighting the value of mentorship in the practice of inquiry. Through this more holistic lens on our work, the outreach strategies we employ to recruit students can seem myopic, missing process in the presentation of product while inadvertently reinforcing barriers for minoritized students.
We understand that the benefits of participation extend beyond the disciplinary and acknowledge failure as an expectation of engaging in research and creative work. We also know the path forward is often clouded in uncertainty. But we see the value of students pursuing inquiry that “seeks to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge”—even if they fail to do so.
In celebrations of success that foreground confident students creating compelling works of art and making groundbreaking discoveries, the typically circuitous and failure-marked path to success is routinely obscured and can inadvertently communicate inaccurate expectations for students considering participation.
For many students, but especially first-generation students and those from minoritized backgrounds, these stories of success can confirm perceptions of “imposter syndrome” and the external realities undermining belonging in the academic and creative life of the institution by leaving little space for failure and uncertainty.
In College Belonging, Lisa Nunn observes that “many students enter college unsure about their interests [and have] uncertainty over the big picture.” Compounding this anxiety, is a widespread belief that “the spark of passion that they are looking for is striking students all around them.”
Nunn emphasizes, these moments of insight are “rarer than they imagine.” For students still unsure about their major, the distance between someone presenting a research project can appear impossible to navigate.
Well-intentioned campus cultures often calibrate these expectations by framing activities like undergraduate research in elite or prestige programs, such as an honors college or scholars office, and students are often selected for programs based on academic metrics—reinforcing narratives of exclusion and positioning these opportunities as enrichment for the highly-talented more than pathways for all students.
We know these transformative experiences are empowered by mentorship and can provide a pathway to belonging in all aspects of campus life, but our outreach and program structures must align with this emphasis on learning to translate the significant opportunity of undergraduate research into engagement and belonging for students from minoritized backgrounds.
Cultivating Brave Spaces
We work to cultivate brave spaces for critical conversations by supporting our project mentors with an online Mentoring Guide that includes information about the Lightbulb Moment and describes the transformative power of storytelling in the practice of inclusive mentorship. We also host workshops on storytelling in partnership with campus units and continue to explore partnerships for faculty development.
Though some participants have been reluctant to share their stories in these contexts, the conversations that emerge as participants share their stories have provided opportunities to surface issues of failure, uncertainty, imposter syndrome, belonging and many other themes common among students, faculty and staff. As with students who see their peers and mentors through the lens of success, faculty and staff participants are often surprised to hear these themes repeated so pervasively in a university setting.
We encourage the community to continue these conversations in their interactions with students who can find empowerment in knowing that their mentors have also struggled with doubt—and benefited from mentorship.Though we leave the stories shared in faculty and staff workshops in these spaces, we include many student Lightbulb Moment stories in the context of our Curiosity Lab workshop series, which provides an introduction to experiential learning for all undergraduates. We partner with a range of student-support and equity-oriented programs in hosting these workshops and coordinating participation.
All workshops are designed to support students at any stage of their undergraduate career—and with any level of experience with research or other opportunities. Each workshop provides opportunities to connect with supportive staff and peers throughout the community with student stories integrated throughout the presentations and materials. The overall objective of the series is to invite students to consider where their curiosity is pointing them and help them find where they can draw the confidence to explore their context—and seek new opportunities.
Centering Stories in Programming
Storytelling is also an essential component of our in-person and virtual campus events, which are designed to center students in the narratives of their education and provide opportunities for dialogue.
The most direct expression of this approach is a virtual version of a popular in-person event that required rethinking during the peak of the pandemic. At the previous in-person UROP Symposium, faculty hosted tables at a large social gathering for historically minoritized students and shared stories with small groups of students who periodically rotated to other tables—visiting the refreshment table in between.
In our new virtual format, rebranded as Zoom into Research and Creative Work, we assemble panels of faculty who meet with students in small breakout rooms to share their stories. Though some of the dynamics of the in-person event are missing in the virtual format, the cost differential and accessibility considerations make it a compelling format moving forward. Students and faculty alike have expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to hear and share stories in an accessible format.
At our annual UROP Sidewalk Symposium, we spotlight student stories by inviting the campus community of undergraduate researchers and creative practitioners to share their work by creating chalk art on the campus walkways and chat with passersby. With the help of a professional chalk artist and educator from the area, students typically spend hours creating large and colorful pieces that can look like a traditional research poster—but rarely do. Over the years students have taken the event in new directions and inspired our team with their creativity and enthusiasm for the format.
Even more exciting than the art these students create are the conversations they have with their fellow students as they stop to admire the work. In these serendipitous moments, students are typically eager to explain their work and their projects, which are often still in-progress. Because the format limits the ability to share results in numbers and charts, students generally focus on big ideas and their role in the work, in effect, recentering the narrative of the traditional poster session. In addition to providing benefits to participants, the event has expanded our outreach efforts and allowed many students to see themselves as future participants—meeting students where they are (on the sidewalk).
Challenges and Future Directions
Storytelling continues to provide compelling pathways for students to connect with the academic and creative life of the campus—and find belonging in the global community of scholars.
By embracing failure and uncertainty as a part of everyone’s story, the Lightbulb Moment Initiative offers students the opportunity to see themselves as participants, contributors and change-agents. Supported by opportunities oriented toward growth and enabled by the cultivation of brave spaces, storytelling can advance social justice efforts in meaningful ways while providing opportunities for community building.
As we transition to a “new normal,” the dynamics of belonging will also evolve and require new approaches to building inclusive communities. In our efforts to reframe the narratives about undergraduate research on our campus, responses have included reluctance in being vulnerable to more overt resistance to our shift in focus. We remain committed to telling the full story with all the twists and turns of uncertainty and failure, and we will continue to explore new opportunities to cultivate dialogue.
The stories we tell about the work we do can expand the boundaries of our communities and make our campuses more empowering spaces for all students.
- Edwards, Callie W. 2019. “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome and Stereotype Threat: Reconceptualizing the Definition of a Scholar.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, 18 (1).
- Nunn, Lisa M. 2021. College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
UROP appreciates Carolyn Moreau, Tim Grassley and the student videographers in Strategic Relations for producing amazing Lightbulb Moment videos; professional chalk artist Kyle Banister for bringing the Sidewalk Symposium to life; program partners throughout campus—and all the students, faculty and staff for sharing their stories!