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Northwestern University

This Northwestern Life

A campus-wide initiative introduces students to the quintessential art of storytelling

"I am 16 years old, and my best friend has just come out of a coma after a car accident."

"I am 4 years old, and I’ve just stolen a 99-cent lip balm from a department store."

"I am 10 years old, and I have just met the guy who is going to destroy my life."

Megan Stielstra (pictured above), a Northwestern artist-in-residence, author and veteran Chicago storyteller, is drawing stories out of more than a dozen undergraduates in a Shepard Hall community room. The tales are funny, poignant and dramatic, and they illustrate a core truth: that human beings are driven to share and to listen to each other’s personal narratives.

“I love storytelling, because it’s the most accessible art form,” Stielstra tells the students. “You are already doing it — in classrooms, with your roommates and on first dates.”

Stielstra’s workshop was a featured event in This Northwestern Life, a three-month series of readings, panels and performances designed to introduce students to the techniques of live nonfiction storytelling. Sponsored by the College’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and the Office of Residential Academic Initiatives, the series culminated in a storytelling contest in May that drew participants from across the Northwestern community.

More than 100 students partook in the series, learning skills that ranged from developing story ideas to using sensory details to make stories come alive.

“A number of students contacted us and asked, ‘Am I going to be the only one who’s never done this before?’ It was great for us to hear that, because those were exactly the kind of students we wanted to participate,” said Kaplan graduate assistant Emily Lane, who coordinated the series.

They included students like Irina Huang ’19, who attended numerous events in the series.

“Stories tap into so many different parts of the human experience — anger, joy, the coexistence of anger and joy,” Huang said. “College is such an intense experience, and you are going to experience a lot of those kinds of moments. Storytelling is a way to process what is happening to you.”

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