How a campus storytelling project builds community

October 17, 2022

“More Than A Single Story: UM-Dearborn Speaks,” now in its second year, documents unique experiences and reflections of UM-Dearborn students.

Photo of students participants, Ruthvik Sankar and Kylie Martin, in the "More than a Single Story" project working together.
"More than a Single Story" student participants Ruthvik Sankar and Kylie Martin are working together to create a digital video.

Communities are built upon shared experiences. Knowing the power of a personal story, a campuswide project focuses on the impact narratives have on the people who tell them — and on those who listen.

More Than A Single Story: UM-Dearborn Speaks,” now in its second year, documents personal experiences, like nonlinear paths to deciding a major, what it’s like to be a student at “the other Michigan” and dispelling stereotypes. So far 11 students have participated.

People need a multitude of stories to properly engage with a place. So “More Than a Single Story” is providing students, who are compensated for their critical thinking and creative work, with a way to share their stories while challenging the myths about Dearborn, the Detroit Metropolitan area, regional commuter campuses, the surrounding Muslim-American community, and other social divisions between the city of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs.

A mix of oral history and digital media, “More Than A Single Story: UM-Dearborn Speaks” allows people curious about campus to see authentic experiences, and gives Dearborn Wolverines the opportunity to learn digital storytelling while discovering what drives them and shapes their purpose. 

“This goes beyond being a project. It has made an impact on my life by creating a positive change in me and helping me with social responsibility,” said Robotics Engineering graduate student Ruthvik Sankar, who is an international student. “And it’s teaching me about the community I’m in and the impact I can have on it.”

Sankar’s digital storytelling video focused on international community perspectives of Detroit and Black Americans. “I was told to be afraid, even before arriving in the U.S., about people I had never met. I learned quickly that this fear was very wrong. I want to take accountability and dispel rumors. I had a team member, who is Black, and her dad watched my video before it was posted and her dad said he appreciated what I put out there.”

The 2021-2022 cohort of students, which included Sankar, created short three-to-five-minute videos with narrative, visuals, music and more. You can see their videos

Now that the first group has completed their work, they are mentoring a second group of students who started this fall. On Fridays, all students meet to discuss their ideas, share updates, give each other constructive criticism, and listen to guidance from campus faculty and staff.

In order to make the project as inclusive as possible, video editing experience isn’t required, and neither is a communications background. To get everyone up to a professional level, UM-Dearborn staff — led by Mardigian Library Associate Director Holly Sorcher and Library Research Center Head Christopher Spilker — teach these skills. Faculty members with storytelling expertise also provide guidance.

“More Than A Single Story” is supported by a Coalition for Life-Transformative Education (CLTE) grant to expand existing campus resources and technologies to teach digital storytelling to a closely mentored cohort. The grant was matched by the Chancellor’s office. This Experience Plus partnership program involved Mardigian Library, Career Services and Global Education.

“It’s great watching the dynamics of our returning students offer new students sound advice and share the value of their experience,” said Spilker, who became a StoryCenter-certified facilitator prior to leading the project. “Our first group says that they surprised themselves with what they are capable of, production aside, because they really allowed themselves to be vulnerable. They learned what they were capable of when it comes to creating meaning out of their own experiences and sharing it in a real and engaging way. There’s power in that.”

College of Business sophomore Carlos Gonzalez, who was part of the first cohort, said reflecting on his own experience for his video made him realize that he’s exactly where he should be. Graduating at the top of his high school, Gonzalez planned to go to UM-Ann Arbor. But, when he was waitlisted, he made a decision to attend UM-Dearborn with a plan to transfer. In his digital story, he explores the conflict he felt when he recognized that he no longer intended on transferring.

“The project was a reflection period for me. There was pressure to go to Ann Arbor from friends. However, I realized that I had everything I wanted right here. I could still go to football games in the Big House and hang out in Ann Arbor, but still save money by living at home when I’m earning a Michigan degree,” he said. "Plus, my professors are great and I really like it here. After I shared my story, I heard from other students who felt the same pressure from outside sources — when you realize that you aren’t alone in something, it opens up a conversation and helps create another layer of community.”

Spilker said community building is a major objective for this initiative. And he’s pleased to see how students picked up on that, along with crafting a compelling narrative and gracefully receiving criticism.

“No matter what you do, there will be criticism, change suggestions and feedback. If you can handle feedback on something that’s so personal like these videos, you will be able to handle anything,” he said. “Storytelling, flexibility and community-building are valuable skills to have now and long after graduation. These are important and transferable skills regardless of career field — engineering, healthcare, business, communications, anything. But don’t just take my word for it, our students are the project’s best ambassadors.”

Sankar, who is now mentoring sophomore Kylie Martin, is helping her hone in on her experience growing up as a child with a parent in the military. He said he enjoys his new role because he knows the impact this digital storytelling project had on him and he’s looking forward to seeing what Martin learns.

“It really has changed how I see myself and how I see the world. In classes, I get lessons about computer science and robotics. Hare, I get to learn about myself and how I connect to other people,” he said. “I came to UM-Dearborn for the graduate program, but I’ll leave here with a stronger sense of who I am and how I can contribute to the world — not just as a robotics engineer, but as a human.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.