Joining a new community can be tough sometimes, especially post-pandemic. And with new Retrievers coming from every background imaginable, it’s important to make sure everyone feels welcome when they get here.
That’s where “Your Story Belongs Here” comes in. Now in its second year, this video storytelling collaboration between Initiatives for Identity, Inclusion, and Belonging (i3b) and the Department of Theatre brings students together to learn how to share—and celebrate—their own stories of belonging.
“I think it’s pretty common to enter college and be worried that you’re not going to find your people. It’s very different from high school,” said Adam Bayoumi, a public health major, who spoke about the worries he faced about keeping up with school after his father passed away. “I personally thought the transition would kind of knock me out…and it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick, but I did find my people eventually.”
Guiding students’ steps
The resulting film, which was shown at Welcome Week to incoming students, showcases the experiences of 10 students from a variety of backgrounds. Some explore identity or overcoming imposter syndrome. Others speak from the perspectives of adult learners reentering college or international students settling into a new culture. Some felt comfortable in front of a camera while others had to overcome that fear over time. Thankfully, in this second iteration of the project, students took advantage of a four-week workshop-style internship to perfect their performances with help from their cohort and guidance from faculty and staff co-creators.Members of the Your Story Belongs Here group gather before the Welcome Week event. Photo courtesy of Eve Muson.
“We got to have much, much more time with students this year to develop their storylines and infuse some social justice education around identity…storytelling and monologuing, all that good stuff,” said Ciara Christian, acting director of i3b, and a co-founder of the project. “We also had a really cool opportunity to take students to see some live theatre performances…there was a storytelling event in Washington, D.C., that we took the students to, to help inspire them, and it was a beautiful process.”
Project co-founder Eve Muson, associate professor of theatre, called the workshop experiences “magical.” She also brought in alumna Kiirstn Pagan ’11 to film and edit the work. “Because we had more time, the stories were more complex and students were really talking honestly about the identity that they bring with them when they come to UMBC—their doubts, their fears, their trepidations, all of that,” said Muson. “And then there’s the moment when they discover themselves at UMBC. So, that’s the shape of every story.”
Finding your “second family”
When Jaya Marshall, a transfer student focusing on cinematic arts, first arrived at UMBC, she, too, worried she wouldn’t fit in, that she might be the lone theatre person in a sea of STEM students—something she realizes now was a misperception. But seeing the inaugural “Your Story Belongs Here” video at her own Welcome Week in 2022 helped change her mind—and also inspired her to take part in the project the following summer.
“When I saw that video I was like, oh, thank you,” said Marshall, who quickly found several clubs to join after arriving at UMBC. “Thank God, I am not the only one. I hope people who are arts and humanities will see that and be like, okay, I’m not alone.”
Public health major Mashaal Awan chose to share her story of going to UMBC’s STRiVE leadership retreat, which she says had “a huge impact on me in terms of realizing my values” and also helped her make friends she now considers her “second family.” In her video, Awan recalled the first evening of STRiVE, walking outside with friends beneath a beautiful night sky.
“I remember feeling a sense of freedom I had been craving my whole life with these people I instantly felt such a strong connection with,” she recalled in the video.
Bayoumi hopes that the vulnerability students show through their storytelling helps incoming students feel more comfortable and welcome at UMBC.
“Fast forward to the end of the school year, and I had done stuff that I never thought I would have achieved in college,” he said. “So to me at 17 years old, I would just like to say, ‘Hang in there. Life dealt you some hard cards, and it’s going to be okay.’”