Oct 26, 2015Vol. 46, Issue 2

Short Videos Share Senior Stories

Social work project connects young with old

School of Social Work alum Jennifer Orlando created this digital narrative about her investigation into her Italian heritage. The video was part of the school’s intergenerational storytelling project.

Two School of Social Work faculty have found that multiple usesand no shortage of magical momentscome from integrating digital storytelling into classes and campus programs. What started as an effective method for working with older adults has expanded to something that is used in other corners of the University. 

In 2011, professors Seema Sehrawat and Celeste Jones saw the promise of social work students using short videos as a way to connect with present or future clients. This tool, called digital storytelling, has its roots in movements dating to the 1960s and ’70s that sought to make art and technology available to everyone, as well as a growing interest in oral histories. As technology became even more accessible, and with the advent of the user-generated Internet sites like YouTube, a wide variety of groups began using digital storytelling, including teachers, community activists, and social workers. 

After attending a weeklong training at the Center for Digital Storytelling (now called StoryCenter), Jones and Sehrawat planned to use the skills they learned with social work students who had an interest in gerontology. Two years earlier, in December 2009, the Interdisciplinary Center on Aging had been established on campus to address the increasing needs of older adults in Chico State’s service area. More than one in five Californians is age 60 or older, and Butte County has a higher percentage of residents age 65 or older than California overall. Sehrawat was the center’s first director and was succeeded by Jones. They knew that the social work field needed practitioners interested in helping older adults and thought digital storytelling could facilitate that.

Jones and Sehrawat launched an intergenerational storytelling research project, aided by a grant from the Office of the Provost in 2013, and paired four students with volunteer older adults from the community. The students learned not only how to record and produce the video, but how to help their partner focus on one life story that was particularly meaningful. “We call them a moment in time,” said Sehrawat. “Telling your whole life story can be overwhelming, but one time of your life is not.” She said the completed videos “touched many people” who saw them and changed the lives of the students and older adults who participated. “The students’ perspectives definitely changed because of this experience,” Jones said. “How they viewed older people wasn’t the same as when they started the project.”

The Interdisciplinary Center on Aging partnered with StoryCenter in spring 2014 on “All Together Now,” a project to honor the Civil Rights Movement and narrow the generation gap through storytelling. Five older adults from the community and one Chico State masters in social work student recorded their stories. Country Village Care, an assisted living facility in Chico, hosted an event that featured the participants. The videosfeaturing stories by senior citizens about past struggles for civil and human rights and young people advocating for equality, justice, and opportunityare posted on a website with those of other communities. 

From left, social work professors Seema Sehrawat and Celeste Jones worked with communication design student Tucker Bowers on the digital storytelling project. (Jason Halley)

From left, social work professors Seema Sehrawat and Celeste Jones worked with communication design student Tucker Bowers on the digital storytelling project. (Jason Halley)

Sehrawat used the videos to illustrate digital storytelling in several speeches she gave in the North State, including one at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) General Meeting in fall 2014. The videos were so well received that OLLI provided funds for a digital storytelling workshop for its members that fall. Sehrawat said the workshop helped influence OLLI director Ann Nikolai to take part in a March 2015 collaboration with the Joe Goode Performance Group to capture experiences of aging in dance and video. 

To showcase the growing numbers of digital storytelling pieces, Jones and Sehrawat along with students set up a YouTube channel called “My Story – My Voice” that hosts videos by campus and community members. Typical videos include poignant memories and realizations, and feature narration in the person’s own voice, creative use of still photos and music, and artful writing and pacing. “These digital stories are just three to four minutes long, but when you watch them it seems time has stopped,” Sehrawat said. “You connect with the storyteller, and their experience touches you in so many different but profound ways.”

Sehrawat and Jones presented the results of their intergenerational digital storytelling project at the April 2015 International Congress on Gerontology and Geriatrics in Dublin, Ireland. Three Chico State studentsa masters of social work graduate, a psychology graduate, and a communication design sophomoretravelled with them and participated in the conference. “It was a transformative experience for these students and for us,” said Sehrawat. “One of the students had never travelled abroad and this was his first international trip.” In reflecting on the value of the trip, one student commented: “We got to know our professors and teammates at a more personal level and consolidated as a group. This experience and spending all day with each other allowed us to have intellectual conversations in restaurants and buses and made for a think tank-like experience.” 

This summer, Jones and Sehrawat gave a demonstration of digital storytelling to a group of Chico State faculty at Academy e-Learning. The faculty learned the skills and made videos to show to their new students this fall, as a way of introducing themselves. “Our goal is to open up digital storytelling opportunities across campus,” said Jones. “It is truly an interdisciplinary tool,” Sehrawat said “We plan to conduct qualitative interviews with faculty who used digital storytelling in the classroom and show the impact of these stories at a broader level." They have also been contacted by the University Diversity Council, which is interested in exploring digital storytelling as a way for campus community members to tell how diversity has impacted their lives. 

In November, Sehrawat and Jones are making a presentation at the Gerontological Society of America’s Annual Scientific Meeting in Orlando, Florida. They plan to explain the use of digital storytelling as a tool for intergenerational collaboration and student engagement in aging research, show how it enhances social connectedness among older adults, and discuss how the work may encourage students to pursue careers in aging. Looking ahead, they are seeking funding for a new website that contains a “virtual story booth” for CSU, Chico students, faculty, staff, and members of the North State community. The online site would provide easy access to the steps for creating a digital story.

While they acknowledge more research is needed to explore how digital storytelling impacts social connections and intergenerational bonds, Sehrawat and Jones remain strong advocates for its future use. “Digital storytelling is a powerful tool,” said Sehrawat.

Public Affairs and Publications director Joe Wills may be reached at jwills@csuchico.edu

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