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Student Life launches program for students to share life stories

The Division of Student Life recently launched a program focused on sharing personal stories through writing, poetry and performance.

Titled the “DSL Narrative Project: Telling Our Stories, Having Our Say at Mills College,” the project will consist of focus groups, interviews, photo exhibits and storytelling.

Jess Miller, director of Services for Disabilities and a co-chair of the program, said, “The idea of finding your voice is so important, and this is what this project is about.”

On Dec. 9, DSL staff will host an informal informational gathering for interested students. Jan. 26 will mark the project’s first event-the Spoken Word Kick-Off, facilitated by Dean Joi Lewis.

“We know that there will be much wisdom in the stories. We want to hear why students love Mills, so that we can reproduce those things, but we also want to hear any stories of challenge, disappointment, or heartbreak, so we can have systemic ways to prevent these in the future,” Lewis said.

Toni Blackwell, assistant dean and the other co-chair of the program, said, “I think each student group has a different story. We want all students to feel like they are represented to some degree and to make sure that all voices are heard.”

Lewis said main goals of the project include student retention and completion of graduation. “Mills has historically been a place with many different students-like parenting students, students of color, and students of different gender and sexual expressions-but the critical mass of these students has grown very much; so, we want the stories to go with the numbers. We want to know what the real Mills experience is.”

According to Miller and Blackwell, the data from the program will be collected, analyzed and used in conjunction with quantitative retention data collected by Institutional Research as a basis to reevaluate programs and services offered at the College.

“This is going to be a very invigorating process. There are people in the community that may know one of these stories, but none of us knows all of them. I just think it is going to be very exciting, but also very instructive and practical,” Miller said. “There are some amazing stories out there and this is where people can share them.”

Lewis said freshwoman interviews were the closest thing to this project that Mills College had ever done. The interviews were mandatory for all incoming students about four years ago. She said that while they brought out the stories of first-years, there was no follow-up to get the stories of their experiences at Mills.

She said this program will be much more structured, including training sessions for students to facilitate focus groups. “Sometimes students will share more when the groups are peer-led,” Lewis said.

Miller said this project is ‘Dr. Joi’s vision; she brought it to light, and being a theater person, I thought, if there are stories, we can say them out loud and bring them to life.” This is where the performance component of the project comes in.

Blackwell said she has been involved in a similar project before coming to Mills this fall. “But this is taking it to a whole different level by adding performances into it. I have seen the narrative and how it can transform a campus; so, I am excited to see how all of the mediums can transform.”

Coordinators will arrange multiple points of entry to accommodate all student schedules, according to Lewis.

“We know that students cannot be involved in all parts of the project, but they can participate, for example, in just the spoken word, in the opportunity to tell stories over lunch, or in performing their narrative,” she said.

She said the program will adopt methodology from Education professor Diane Katelle, for students who wish to maintain confidentiality. Such provisions include writing their narrative as fiction.

DSL staff have also asked faculty for nominations of students, so that others who are connected with students can help ensure that there is a broad range of student participation.

According to Blackwell, this is an opportunity for faculty and staff to get to know Mills women and their stories. She said, “I am excited for the part of the project that will compare the stories of Mills women today to the stories of Mills women that were recorded in the 1950s and 1960s by a writer in Berkeley.”

Miller likened this project to the picture of Mills women, then and now, in the lobby of Cowell.