Seton Hill University (SHU) introduced a new program for first-year students Sept. 15 called “Be the Story: Mission in Action,” replacing the previously required book discussion.
The event began in Cecilian Hall with a video created by the SHU community called “What is a Setonian?” Then, the group watched a TED Talk video by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” After the video, students and faculty broke into small groups for discussion, and returned to learn about Narrative 4, a movement that encourages people to become more empathetic by sharing personal stories.
“I felt like people were really willing to be honest and vulnerable in some important ways,” said Debra Faszer-McMahon, chairperson of the Division of Humanities. “That’s really the key to building empathy: being able to be vulnerable yourself and create that space where other people can be vulnerable.”
During previous summers, incoming first-year students and faculty read a book chosen by SHU’s summer reading committee. After the opening liturgy, students and faculty broke into groups based on major to discuss the book. However, the committee discontinued the program last year.
“Some people had read the book and some people hadn’t read the book, and then it was really hard to have a discussion,” said Kim Pennesi, director of the writing center. “I like “Be the Story” because it introduces something that is ongoing. I think there’s a much closer connection to Seton Hill, who we are, what we hope to do, becoming a Setonian and how this relates to our mission.”
McMahon said Christine Cusick, associate professor of English and composition, was exploring last year how SHU could “foster deeper conversations” about different issues, and discovered the Narrative 4 project. A group of faculty and students went through Narrative 4 training, which includes participating in a story exchange.
In a story exchange, everyone is randomly paired off and given prompts. Partners exchange their stories based off the given prompt. Finally, everyone tells the whole group their partners’ stories in a first-person perspective.
“It’s a very powerful experience because it’s hard to tell your own story to somebody that you may not really know,” Pennesi said. “I think it was even more powerful being trusted with that person’s story, so I really do think the whole idea of Narrative 4 is to help develop empathy for other people’s stories.”
After training, Cusick invited a group of faculty to form a planning committee for the “Be the Story” event. Although the committee wanted to tie Narrative 4 into the event, the members decided a story exchange would not be possible. Instead, McMahon said the committee wanted to use a video to address issues of “story and empathy,” and discuss it in small groups.
“I enjoyed the video with the lady talking about the single story,” said freshman theatre design & technology major Molly Carbone. “I just found it really inspiring and really moving.”
For the discussions, students and faculty were randomly selected for small groups. The groups were given pre-written discussion questions about the video, starting with one word to describe the video, and ending with one word to describe the group conversations.
“The question that talked about adjusting to a new environment really struck a chord with the small group I was in,” McMahon said. “I think for first-year students, there’s a lot of adjustments that they’re making socially, and I thought they connected that in really meaningful ways with Adichie’s concern about the single story.”
“We actually had a student in our group who was from Africa, and he said a lot of his experiences were exactly what Adichie said, so that was kind of interesting to hear,” Pennesi said.
Carbone, who was in McMahon’s group, said her discussion was interesting and she might be interested in Narrative 4.
“I already try not to judge people, so it just furthered my understanding of why I shouldn’t judge people,” Carbone said. “If you don’t take time to think about other people and where they come from, it’s eye opening for people.”
The opening liturgy, led by Greensburg Bishop Edward C. Malesic, followed “Be the Story” in St. Joseph Chapel. McMahon and Pennesi said they are hoping in subsequent years, more students and faculty will attend the opening liturgy after the event.
“I’m not Catholic, but I’m so grateful because I feel like Seton Hill is a very welcoming community,” McMahon said. “In the future, maybe we as a committee could do a better job of helping students know that they’re welcomed to that event and they don’t have to be from a particular religious tradition.”
McMahon said the committee plans to continue the “Be the Story” event in the future, and hopes more students will become involved with Narrative 4. She added anyone interested in Narrative 4 should contact herself or Cusick.
“I hope students felt in some way that the video and the conversations opened up new ways of seeing and being for them, and revealed more deeply what it means for us to become Setonians,” McMahon said.