During Orientation, members of the Classes of 2023 participated in the #ThisisHWS storytelling workshop, now in its second year. Facilitated by the Office of Campus Life and the Personal Empowerment Institute, the workshop gave students space to connect, listen and practice empathy with their new peers.
“It’s not often that we get opportunities to develop empathy,” says Assistant Vice President and Dean of Student Engagement and Conduct Brandon Barile. “After looking at previous data we had on students’ experiences at Orientation, we identified that students wanted practical opportunities to connect to one another.” Barile facilitated the workshops alongside Cornell Woodson, the Chief Diversity Officer at Looker.
The #ThisisHWS initiative asks students to identify a powerful moment in their lives and share the experience with a peer. Students choose what story from their life they want to tell and were prompted by questions such as: What moment in your life stands out as powerful or guiding in your development? What relationships are important to you? For students who might want to talk about more recent experiences, they explore other questions such as their favorite quote or why they came to HWS. Students then isolate a single quote from the story to share with a larger audience through a photograph. Photographs are printed for first-year students to pick up during the second week of classes.
Several peer leaders in their sophomore, junior and senior years shared their stories with first-years as models. “I decided to tell the first-year students about going to counseling,” says Alex Cottrell ’20, whose story focused on seeking help after the passing of two influential family members. “The story ultimately means that I am learning to take care of myself. While striving to be the best and be a part of everything possible, it is necessary to take a step back and check in with yourself and ask, ‘how am I doing?’”
In the process of telling their stories, students say they felt empowered to become more effective public speakers and communicators. Barile says this skill-building is one of the secondary outcomes of the program.
“Overall, my public speaking skills were enhanced as well as my skill set of telling an effective story and helping others effectively communicate,” Cottrell says.
Hrithik Biswas ’23 felt encouraged to share a story about his past. “Storytelling is such a powerful tool. It enables us to share knowledge, cultures, memories and happiness.”
On the flip side, says Barile, students are also tasked with becoming active listeners during their peer’s story. “We teach that empathy isn’t about feeling sorry or giving advice. It’s about saying “That sucks…what does support look like for you? How can I help? Thank you for telling me,” and trying to understand the lens or perspective someone else sees the world,” Barile says.
Victoria Kata ’21, another peer leader, spoke about the complexities in the phrase “stay true and be you,” when confronted by staying true to yourself or conforming to people’s expectations.
“I chose to share this particular story with the first-years because they are meeting new people for the first time in a new place,” says Kata. “They can be anyone they want to be, or they can conform to their new friends in order to feel well liked.” Kata believes the #ThisisHWS initiative has tapped into a powerful medium for students to express themselves. In fact, she still has her photograph on her mirror from last year when she participated as an orientation mentor.
“Storytelling has given me time to cope with what I went through. I have learned that writing can really help me with hard situations,” she says. Leela Willie ’22 served as an orientation mentor this year, and recalled participating in the event last year. “The event helped me understand where I came from, what’s important to me, and how to communicate my story to others,” Willie recalled.
The #ThisisHWS initiative will be replicated with several other student groups on campus during the academic year.