In honor of its 125th anniversary, Belmont University has dedicated the 2015-16 school year to a campus and community-wide celebration of the institution’s “belief in something greater.” With a year-long birthday party planned, the celebration features many events including an invitation to bring StoryCorps to campus, America’s “oral history project” aimed at capturing some of the country’s most powerful stories.
When the initial ideas for Belmont’s 125th anniversary were created, faculty and staff were invited to consider ways to incorporate the celebration into the academic year. Senior Director of University Marketing and Public Relations and 125 Committee Chair John Carney said it was those conversations that laid the groundwork for the University’s year-long programming. As discussions occurred surrounding ways to best celebrate such a significant milestone, Carney said it became more and more clear that the stories of those who contributed to the University’s success should be central to the celebration of its legacy.
“Capturing the real stories from Belmont’s past and present would paint the best picture of this institution’s heritage,” Carney said. “And hearing those stories from the mouths of people who experienced them firsthand was the most genuine way to convey them.”
When creating her 125 celebration proposal, Associate Provost of Assessment and Institutional Research Tracy Rokas said she was struck with the idea of narrative and its centrality to the formation of identity. As a member of the University’s Provost Office, Rokas said her team was looking for innovative ways to infuse campus-wide curriculum with opportunities for students to explore their own compelling narratives. When considering the fit for the 125th celebration and a curriculum emphasis on narrative, Rokas said StoryCorps was a perfect fit.
For Carney and the 125 Committee, the idea was an immediate hit. “From the moment Tracy suggested StoryCorps, we knew it had to be a part of the celebration plan,” Carney said.
After spending three days on campus in August, the StoryCorps team completed 17 interviews with 34 people from the greater Belmont community including current students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, friends and donors. Sitting in groups of two, members of the Belmont family told their stories – the Belmont story – detailing the rich history of an institution that endured significant challenges to become the University known today.
To debut the StoryCorps compilations, two interviews with alumni and current students were showcased at a convocation held on Wed., Oct. 21 where StoryCorps’s Eve Claxton discussed the power of capturing history through story. During her presentation, Claxton described the neuroscience behind storytelling versus information processing. When a story is involved, Claxton said the brain processes the information as if the experience actually happened to the listener, a process called neurocoupling. When information processing includes a vivid story, “their stories become your memories,” Claxton said.
In a discussion detailing their time on campus as Ward-Belmont students, Mary Niederhauser and Laddie Neil told stories of earlier Belmont days where ladies were required to dress in their finest to go into town, needed written permission before leaving campus for a date and looked forward to “t-dances” where they could perform the jitterbug. As they reminisced, Niederhauser discussed the common love shared for Ward-Belmont and its community. “Every day was special – we celebrated everything in a royal way,” Niederhauser said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the college I went to than this one.”
Current students Mikaela Clark and Zach Middleton shared similar sentiments in their discussion of the Belmont they celebrate today. Though different in size and footprint, its heart has remained remarkably similar to the one described by Niederhauser and her Ward Belmont sister, Neil.
After visiting Belmont in high school, Middleton said he was struck with its friendly atmosphere and community feel – an aspect of the University that Middleton said contributed to his interest. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I’m comfortable with who I am in my own skin. I’ve never felt that until I came [to Belmont].”
The recipient of a Hearst Scholarship, Clark said she is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to earn a Belmont education and become part of the larger Belmont story, something that she knows will continue on far beyond her four years. “There are people that have been a part of the story of Belmont for decades and have bled into what it has now become. They have created the foundation for this,” Clark said. “And one day we’re going to be someone’s legacy – that’s what I don’t want to change about Belmont. I want every student who comes here to feel like the two feet they place on this ground make a difference and they have imprinted themselves into this University.”
As the University’s 125th anniversary celebration continues on, the remaining 15 StoryCorps interviews will be released to chronicle Belmont’s “belief in something greater” through the power of story, a medium Claxton encouraged attendees to unharness and use daily. “We need to hear your voice – strong, passionate, compelling voices like yours,” Claxton said. “When you do speak out, go into your tool box and pull out your stories. When we share these stories, we make connections, open doors and bridge divides.”
To access Belmont’s 125th stories, visit the anniversary website or download “Stories of Belmont” from the iTunes store. To chronicle your own 125 story and contribute to Belmont’s celebration, click here.