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A story-spinning initiative this year adds St. Norbert narratives to the nation’s largest oral-history archive.

Tell Me a Story

What would happen if you were given the chance to sit down with a friend, a coworker, a professor, a classmate or an alum and just share stories for an hour? 

No distractions. 

No expectations.

No divisive discourse.

Just a simple way for you to listen to a piece of someone’s history, or recount a piece of your own. 

Sure, talking is something we do all the time. We talk to our parents on the phone or to our family at get-togethers. We talk to our friends by tagging them on Facebook or snapping a funny filter on Snapchat. We even talk about deeper topics with our professors and classmates in Boyle Hall. But those conversations can include a glance at our phone to answer a quick text, being distracted by Netflix on the nearest device or just thinking about how we’ll respond when there’s a moment of dead air. 

We crave meaningful conversation, but it tends to sit outside of our regular routine more often than not.

But, it’s making a resurgence at St. Norbert College through a partnership with StoryCorps, the oral history project that has touched hearts through the NPR podcast series – as well as through the treasure house of interviews available at the college’s own storycorps.org site. 

Understanding through empathy
  • Students talking with other students about friendship and growth. 
  • Faculty reflecting on their time teaching together and meaningful moments in the classroom. 
  • Staff and students discussing experiences in service and how we thrive by helping others. 
  • Students from varying backgrounds revealing the hardships and challenges they face while transitioning into and out of college.
  • Sharing the importance of communio, finding love in unexpected places and connecting to those around us.  
  • A college president, Class of 1990, reflecting on his journey home to St. Norbert after more than 25 years.

These are just some of the stories that have been recorded by St. Norbert friends so far with the help of the Cassandra Voss Center (CVC) and the StoryCorps organization.

Listening as an act of love

When the CVC first launched its Spinning Stories campaign last fall, there was an initial and understandable hesitancy on the part of students, faculty, staff and others to provide personal tidbits and stories connected to their relationship with St. Norbert College.

Will I be recorded?

What do I even talk about?

Why me? I don’t have anything important to say.

But those questions didn’t prevent stories from being told.

“So many participants felt like they didn’t have a story to share, but when they start recording they have these amazing, beautiful, poignant conversations,” says Lauren March ’17, this year’s AmeriCorps staffer at the CVC.

She says that this is the best part about these conversations. They are completely natural and give an everyday insight into the thoughts and experiences of a wide variety of people. And sometimes they uncover a path to a stronger relationship, or give a way for two people to connect more fully or find common ground on a subject that hasn’t been touched before:

Julie Massey ’87 (Mission & Student Affairs) still considers herself a student of Karina O’Malley (Sociology, Emeritus) even though decades have passed since her undergraduate years: “It was like putting puzzle pieces together. How we looked back on our experiences during that time, from different perspectives was amazing.”

Paige Bonner ’19 and Janie Janczakowski ’21 didn’t realize how connected they would feel discussing their time away from campus until they sat down together and unpacked each of their journeys in different parts of the world.

 Maria Sauer ’17 and Shannon Salter ’18 connected during a conversation about building community through service.

Daniel Webster ’17 revealed that you still have a lot to learn about someone despite being friends for 20 years when he reflected on his conversations with Terrell Brantley ’20.

And Hannah VandeWalle ’18 responded in a similar way: “I felt so full coming out of that conversation [with Jasmine Babineaux ’19]. I learned so much about Jas and felt like something was lifted between us. It deepened our friendship.”

That’s the power of storytelling at work. While listening to these interviews and the many others that have already been recorded, you feel the innate value of a conversation that isn’t forced. In these moments, listening is an act of love and all of the attention is solely focused on the story being told or being heard, maybe for the very first time. “We wanted people to tell stories that made sense to them,” says March. “We worked to make sure we were bringing people from every area of our community in this shared experience. Everyone’s story matters.”

Stories for the whole world

Every story is worth sharing in some way – that’s the central part of the StoryCorps mission.

A not-for-profit founded by radio producer Dave Isay, StoryCorps is well-known among oral-preservation projects. Its work promotes the value of listening and uses one-on-one conversation to help build a shared human experience. Through its efforts, the initiative hopes to create a more just and compassionate world by preserving and sharing stories of everyday people, one exchange at a time.

“Our goals were getting people to listen to each other, have human conversations, which is what the StoryCorps mission is and what they wanted to achieve, too,” says Jaime Gonzalez, assistant director of the CVC. “So it was the perfect fit.”

You’ve likely heard a few of StoryCorps’ interviews featured on PBS as StoryCorps Shorts through the station’s POV series. These animated snippets highlight only a few of the thousands of stories the organization has gathered from people around the world since 2003.

The Storycorps archive comprises one of the most extensive digital collections of recorded human voices. More than 75,000 interviews – including the growing collection of St. Norbert stories – can be found in the online archive. Those stories are also preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Bridget Burke Ravizza (Theology & Religious Studies), who stepped in as interim director of the Cassandra Voss Center this year – the center’s director, Karlyn Crowley (English), just recently came back from a year-long sabbatical – particularly liked the idea of stories as a way to respond to some of the divisiveness we see pop up in our own circles, both in person or online.

She explains that when we understand differences and see commonalities, we humanize. And when we humanize one another instead of seeing labels, we increase our empathy and positive dialogue with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

She also believes tools like StoryCorps are crucial in bringing back more thoughtful conversation and inspiring people of all kinds to share their stories in an unfiltered way.

“Something has been lost in our culture … . We have lost the skill of conversation and how important it is for our own sense of self,” she says. “It deepens our reflection to be in conversation and helps us understand ourselves. It helps us build relationships of all kinds when you listen and get to know someone from their perspective.”

Burke Ravizza took part in the effort as well, sitting down with Kurt Voss to talk about his relationship with his daughter Cassandra ’08 – a relationship founded on love, respect and dialogue across differences. They also discussed the formation of the Cassandra Voss Center and talked about the little miracles that happened along the way, helping the center become a key part of St. Norbert College.

St. Norbert’s storytelling effort culminated in a year-end showcase that highlighted the participants, their experiences and the impact of their stories, specifically through four different themes: friendship and community; hope and faith; solidarity and justice; and transformative education.

“We wanted to spread a culture of dialogue on campus,” says Gonzalez. “Instead of just a ‘hey, how’s it going?’ kind of conversation, we wanted people to take the time to sit down … to learn more than just their viewpoints, the backstory of their beliefs. There’s something that happens when you’re in that space with another person for an hour and that’s why I encourage it. You come out of it with a new sense of something new. It’s magical and powerful and cool.”

March agrees wholeheartedly and adds that the way we think about conversations should change, too: “It’s so simple that we forget how important these conversations are. We think we have conversations all the time, but we never actually take time to just listen to other people just for the sake of hearing them and not for anything else.” 

Share your story through StoryCorps

This isn’t the end of the Spinning Stories campaign.

“[StoryCorps] was something that we could initiate this year, but not something that would stop at the end of this year,” says Bridget Burke Ravizza (CVC, Theology & RS). “We can continue to archive stories from our community, from students, from Norbertines, from anyone, anywhere, really.”

Anyone from St. Norbert College’s wider community is invited to encourage others to sit down for a conversation. Readers, your stories have value!

Here's how to add your voice to the archives:
  1. Visit the StoryCorps website for tips and resources.
  2. Download the app from the App Store or Google Play Store.
  3. Record your interview and upload it from anywhere in the world.
  4. Add your story to the college's community page.

June 30, 2018