Engaged Learning

Seeing the Personal in the Past

Creative writing class interviews seniors for national oral history project

by Ed Carpenter, Office of Marketing Communications

Next time you tune into StoryCorps on NPR, USF creative writing students may be interviewing a former hippy who moved his family to a teepee on Mt. Tamalpais after the Summer of Love, or a Jewish immigrant who survived the Nazi occupation of France, or a 97-year-old native San Franciscan who remembers when gas street lamps lit downtown.

Those stories and more will soon be archived at the Library of Congress as part of an innovative oral history and creative class that matched students with Meals On Wheels San Francisco (MOWSF) seniors and opened a window onto the personal side of history.

Survived Nazi occupation

“I was blown away by the stories and knowledge that ordinary people have to share,” said Haley Heidemann ’16, a double major in theater and writing, who learned about San Francisco’s 1960s and 1970s commercial art scene from husband and wife artists (now retired) Roy and Carol. Stepping outside the textbook to learn about the past opened Heideman’s eyes, and she wasn’t alone.

English major Andrew Kentopp ’15 connected with Rosa, an 80-year-old Jewish widow who survived the Nazi occupation of France. “I was surprised by how invested I became in her story,” Kentopp said. “I have always been interested in World War II history, so I guess it was a happy coincidence that I was matched with her.”

Kentopp spent hours talking with Rosa about her experience hiding in Paris and heard daring tales about those who risked their lives to save her. 

The service-learning class, Introduction to Writing and Oral History, was developed by USF Assistant English Professor Ryan Van Meter and MOWSF, in partnership with StoryCorps — a nonprofit that records interviews and oral histories and archives them at the Library of Congress. For the class, StoryCorps provided USF students with professional audio equipment and trained them on how to use it. 

Stewards of life stories

“I think of the students not just as service learners but as budding experts, providing their professional services pro bono to Meals On Wheels of San Francisco,” said Kate Griffin, who directed the project for MOWSF, a nonprofit that works to alleviate hunger and isolation among homebound seniors and is a USF community partner through the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.

“That our students could be stewards of other peoples’ life histories was an inspiring force for me. The students had the opportunity to grapple with their responsibility to those stories and the relationship-building skills required to produce them,” Van Meter said.

But it was more than just oral histories that Van Meter and Griffin were after. They wanted students to spend time with seniors and to connect with them. Students learned that many seniors are worried about being pushed out of their homes by rising real estate prices, how difficult it can be for them to get around town on public transit, and how some feel discounted as a result of what they describe as our culture’s bias against aging.

Immersed in San Francisco

As part of the service-learning course, students helped the seniors they were matched with complete tasks like organizing photos and learning how to use Facebook. They also did basic home cleaning and delivered Thanksgiving dinners to MOWSF seniors.

In all, 19 students helped more than 40 San Francisco seniors, produced 20 StoryCorps pieces with the seniors, and recorded their own individual StoryCorps reflections about the collaboration. Some could end up on NPR.

“Overall, I’d say, it was exactly what service learning at USF aspires to: teaching students while providing a needed service to the community,” Van Meter said, of the class.

This project was funded by a Cal Humanities Community Stories grant.

Know someone with a powerful USF story? Let us know! usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews