New friendships

Stories: We all have one

First-Year students build relationships through storytelling

“Stories are powerful – everybody has a story – and sharing them helps us break down barriers and form relationships,” said Jeff Rioux, the associate director of the Center for Public Service (CPS).

Rioux co-teaches the new First-Year Seminar (En)Countering Narratives: Storytelling, Identity, and Social Change with the director of CPS, Kim Davidson. CPS’s mission is to foster social justice through a variety of partnerships, including those made between the classroom and community. Davidson and Rioux created the course as a way to model and inspire community-based learning.

The community-based learning component of the course was designed in partnership with the Work-Ready program of the South Central Community Action Program (SCCAP), which offers individuals support to break down barriers to employment. As part of a six-week program called the “Storytelling Institute,” 15 Gettysburg students and 12 Work-Ready participants did just that—told their stories.

“Many of the goals we had for our first-year students and the goals Work-Ready Program had for their clients overlapped,” said Davidson. “We both aimed to build communication skills, improve confidence, develop empathy, enhance critical thinking skills and develop relationships between people whose racial, economic, or religious background may differ.”

First year seminar student

Rioux and Davidson led activities, which enabled the group to share stories and experiences, exposing unexpected commonalities. "By telling and analyzing personal stories, we encouraged participants to make sense of their own experiences and identities, working to connect the personal with the political, the individual with the social,” explained Davidson.

Petey Brainard ’20 said he appreciated the immediate connections that formed through the course. “I was walking in town one night, and I saw this big guy walking down the street—I knew immediately that it was Bill from Work-Ready,” said Brainard. “We had made a really quick friendship through the Storytelling Institute. I ran right up to him and gave him a giant hug and we talked, right in the street, for a long time.”

At the storytelling institute

The Storytelling Institute culminated in a project where pairs participated in StoryCorps' #WhoWeAre initiative, recording interviews focused on a commonality. Significant connections were made as stories about pets, four wheeling, and cooking led to reflection on challenging topics such as reconciliation, regret, addiction, family dynamics, sexuality and the loss of loved ones.

Listen to more stories on the course page.

In addition to facilitating community-based partnerships, the FYS course served to create a cohesive group dynamic through the medium of storytelling. Bolstered through their shared classroom experiences, friendships formed in the FYS classroom are likely to last through students’ four years at Gettysburg.

“By the end of the class, we were all very close as a class, and I felt comfortable sharing almost anything about myself with my peers,” said Brainard. “The class atmosphere was conducive to learning about the social justice issues, but also learning about each other as students from different backgrounds, and growing as people as a result.”

New friendsThe student growth through this course was evident to Rioux and Davidson as instructors. The seminar will be offered again this coming fall, granting a new crop first-year students the opportunity to develop an awareness of the realities that face the Adams County community.

“As students begin to understand the way in which oppression is enforced or dismantled through storytelling, we hope the relationships they develop in and out of the classroom will also serve as fundamental in their coming years in Gettysburg,” said Rioux.

Find out more about First-year Seminars at Gettysburg.


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Article by Megan Decker ’17, communications and marketing intern

Contact: Carina Sitkus, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Fri, 21 Apr 2017

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