How in the world am I going to find 13 culturally diverse teenagers in Cowtown, California, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farm fields?
This question was the first thought that ran through my head when I agreed to take on the #MyGlobalStory project for Global Student Square back in September. The original idea, based on journalism adviser Don Goble’s Six Word Stories, was to tell a student’s unique cultural story through a short profile video highlighting six symbolic words, which would appear on the screen as the person said them.
I was excited about the project until Beatrice Motamedi, executive director of GSS, warned me that I would need to reach out to people I do not know, which terrified me since the one-minute videos were meant to be filmed in the interviewee’s own home in Davis, California, 75 miles northeast of San Francisco and a place we sometimes call “cowtown” for its agricultural surroundings. That fear prompted me to beg one of my best friends to let me use her a test subject. Being a journalist herself, she understood my discomfort and complied with my request.
A few days later, I sat on the carpet in Denna Changizi’s beach-themed bedroom while she recounted the fascinating story of her parents’ two-part journey — from Iran to Italy to America — during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. She explained Persian holidays, debunked stereotypes associated with Iranian immigrants and attempted to teach me how to write in Farsi.
After three years of friendship, I thought I knew everything about my friend Denna. She blended in with every other teenager at school, wearing high-top sneakers and ripped skinny jeans. But I was wrong; she had a whole different culture tucked away at home.
Iran. Italy. America. Culture. Celebrate. Journey. These words summarized the tale of two young adults wishing to escape a country in chaos to fulfill the American Dream. Denna’s video was the first of many intriguing stories, which I visually documented over the next three months.
Living within the greater Sacramento area my entire life had sheltered me from real world problems outside my tiny bubble, leaving me hungry for a taste of unfamiliar traditions and lifestyles.
A few weeks and new feelings of confidence later, I found myself sitting on a carpet floor once again. This time, I questioned Meseret Carver, who was born in Alonkome, Ethiopia, about why she left her home country after her eighth birthday. She candidly explained the differences between opportunities in the United States and Ethiopia, half-joking that she might have been married by now had she not journeyed to California nine years ago.
Ethiopia. So Much More. Surreal. Language Barrier. I strayed from the six-word structure and added a seventh word because Meseret’s narrative of leaving her birth mother and father behind for the promises of a foreign country was so compelling. Each word held powerful meaning and emphasized the sacrifices she made for her future.
In response to her story, I reevaluated my own life and the luxuries I take for granted: textbooks, clean water or waking up to the sound of my dad cooking breakfast in the kitchen. I plastered the video on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, hoping that our GSS audience — which hails from cities including Seoul, Barcelona and Paris — would have similar reactions.
I could not stop there. I was determined to find the most diverse students on campus and give them a voice. The next two videos were lighthearted; they showed clips of scrapbooks, traditional outfits for holidays in Nepal and students happily reminiscing about the past. However, as November and the presidential election approached, my next video took a different direction.
I sought out someone with strong opinions about either candidate, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I stumbled upon Max Banuelos, whose grandfather emigrated from Mexico at the age of two. He began the interview with an anecdote about visiting his grandfather’s house, but later explained his fear about the possibility of Donald Trump keeping families apart by sending undocumented immigrants back to their respective countries.
Across The Border. Break Up Families. These phrases summed up Max’s passionate and clearly-articulated argument about the intricate subject of immigration. He spoke to the camera as if I was not there, growing more emotional and engaged by the minute.
After I turned off my camera, Max went back to being the bubbly, outgoing skateboarder on whom everyone could count for a laugh. I was surprised at the ease with which he flipped the switch on his political views, and more surprised with how he embraced his double identity as a Mexican and an American. Max was proud of the life his grandfather built from scratch and equally proud to be a part of “The Land of the Free.”
The remainder of my interviewees were Guatemalan, Finnish, Chinese, Greek, Nepalese, Turkish, South Korean, South Indian, French and Bengali. Each student offered a different perspective and brought up topics exotic to the United States such as mandatory military service — required in Turkey — and the typical school day in South Korea, which includes night school as well as class during the day.
Instead of being scared to reach out to people I did not know, I looked forward to knocking on a new door each week, setting up my tripod and spending hours at home editing the video, which meant condensing five-to-10-minute interviews down to 50 seconds. Ultimately, I ended up connecting with my subjects on a personal level as well as a professional level.
After producing 13 videos, I can say that sharing these colorful stories was a rewarding experience itself, but getting to know my peers on a deeper level proved to be the most meaningful part of #MyGlobalStory.
When I started the project, the world was a different place. At first, the videos were a good idea for a global student journalism network. But as the presidential election became increasingly important, so did students’ views on immigration, Hispanics, Muslims and even women. If I had done the project another year, the six words in each story would not have resonated with the audience in the same way.
My hope is that #MyGlobalStory does not end here but continues to grow as more people view the videos and share their own global experiences by sending in their own Six Word Stories to Global Student Square. I have created a workflow, which students can follow to create their own video. Once completed, students can send their videos to firstname.lastname@example.org for review and feedback.
This is just the beginning.