Voices carry

A service learning project gave students at a Virginia community college an academic and “spirit-enriching experience.”

Thomas Nelson Community College students got a special take on history when the Newport News Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NNRHA) reached out to the college to partner on Voices from Virginia, a project that allowed elderly residents to share their stories in one-on-one interviews with students.

In visits to housing communities from mid-February to early March, students talked to roughly 40 seniors and gained valuable insight on experiences, moments in history and other factors that shaped local elders’ lives. The project will result in a collection of oral histories archived in Thomas Nelson’s library. The collection will include audio and video tapes which will accompany students’ writings based on the interviews.

“Our Community Resources department wanted to honor our African American seniors [during Black History Month] and do it in a unique and special way…Getting the community involved in this inter-generational project felt like a perfect fit,” said Kim Blowe, a tenant relations advisor with NNRHA who coordinated the venture with Thomas Nelson professors Stacey Schneider and Myleah Kerns.

Schneider and Kerns eagerly accepted Blowe’s invitation to take on this service-learning effort and nearly 40 students participated. In the communications, humanities and social science division as department heads for the past five years – Kerns in English and Schneider in history – the two educators frequently collaborate to create unique experiences for their students.

“Service learning is integral to student success. Service learning exposes them to what is likely to be a completely new environment,” said Schneider.

“Myleah and I aim high. We’re out to broaden perspectives and cultivate empathy in our students and oral history, really, is just the vehicle to achieve that. We devised a project that would get our students out into the community, teach them the process of oral history, celebrate older folks who have lived through many of the time periods we study in class – World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam and Civil Rights, and allow students to leave a permanent contribution behind,” she added.

This venture let students see history through a human perspective apart from what is in textbooks or delivered in lectures. “And, equally important, we want the Newport News residents we interview to feel celebrated and valued for their rich lives and experiences,” she said.

The three project coordinators agreed that Voices from Virginia provided an academic and “spirit-enriching experience” for the students while also honoring seniors as valuable members of the Peninsula community by engaging with, listening to and acknowledging their experiences, histories and contributions,

“The hope is that everyone involved in the project [walked] away being glad that they participated,” Blowe said. “Hopefully, the students are able to fulfill not only academic requirements, but also gain the added benefit of learning from their elders and feeling the joy of making them happy.”

Blowe said several residents who participated thanked her for the experience and expressed “being touched” by how the student interviewers made them feel.

Schneider hopes this project encourages participants to talk to and record the remembrances of the older folks around them. “We take it for granted, but those who lived these experiences won’t be around to carry these histories forever,” she said.

“It’s very academic to read about the Civil Rights Era but we are so privileged that we will hear about someone’s first day at a desegregated school – from the sound of their shoes on the steps into the building, to the feeling of the rigid desk seat, to the pitch of the teacher’s voice calling attendance – we’ll hear the full recounting. Sometimes the books don’t do it justice.”