CENTER VALLEY, Pennsylvania — A little sharing can go a long way in breaking down barriers and fostering camaraderie among diverse groups of people.
That was the concept behind Penn State Lehigh Valley’s recent “We Share Our Stories” program, a joint effort of the Office of Student Affairs and the All In Committee.
At the event, students, faculty and staff performed poems they wrote using a fill-in-the-blank template titled “Where I’m From”. The prompts on the form allowed participants to share entertaining and compelling ideas about their personal history, family life and cultural traditions.
“Our goal with this event was to provide a creative and fun experience to build community and raise awareness of others’ backgrounds,” said Assistant Director of Student Affairs Pam Fleck, who organized the event with Assistant Professor of English Michelle Kaschak and Academic Affairs. Faculty Coordinator Tiffany Valdes-Madera.
It was Valdes-Madera who pitched the model poem “Where I’m From” to the other members of the All In committee, after being introduced to the concept about five years ago when she was on a diversity committee and of inclusion for the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado.
“I loved the experience when I first did it and it has stayed with me all these years,” Valdes-Madera said. “So when the conversation broke out in the All In Committee about what we could do to have meaningful engagement, this poem was the first thing that came to mind.”
“When she pitched it to us as an idea, I immediately knew we could make it happen on campus,” Fleck added.
The committee found about 15 participants ready to complete the poem before the event. From there, about six other members of the campus community who attended the event filled out the form while seated in the audience, then took to the podium for an impromptu performance.
Ryan Adamson was among the participating students, having been intrigued by the overall concept.
“I think it was a great, subtle way to share our stories. I could tell a lot of people had important things to share and it was a great way to do that,” Adamson said. had fun writing my poem. I thought it was going to be really easy at first, but I found out while writing that it was a lot harder than I thought. It was hard to find ways to express what I I wanted with the conditions I was given. I enjoyed reading my poem because I was able to give people a little insight into my life without getting into an in-depth discussion about it. I love sharing my story and it was a nice way to do it.
Fleck said she found the process of writing and performing her poem invigorating.
“It was more challenging and challenging to write this than I thought it would be,” Fleck said. “I really wanted it to reflect who I was and where I came from. Sometimes in a busy world the story I’m embedded in gets lost. It really got me thinking and sparked a flood of thoughts. emotions and memories and gave me a great sense of joy, knowing how all those great experiences helped shape me and still inspire me today.
“The writing process was difficult because there were so many ways my poem could have gone, depending on the particular name or object referenced in the template,” Valdes-Madera said. “I was nervous at first to read my poem, but I really enjoyed writing it down and sharing it with everyone.”
Afterwards, participants were asked to complete a short survey. Fleck noted that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with respondents noting that the exercise helped them learn more about themselves and that it resoundingly demonstrated the diverse and inspiring makeup of the PSU-LV community.
Given that response, Fleck said she would be happy to do the event again.
“It could be a great tradition for us, and maybe next time different people can share their stories,” she said.
“I think this activity really inspired students, faculty and staff to reflect on aspects of their childhood, upbringing and family of origin, and from there create something beautiful,” said Valdes-Madera. “I was so thrilled with the number of people who shared their stories; it was a full loop moment for me. It’s an idea that came to life in an even better way than I could have imagined.