Despite COVID setback, Odyssey Beyond Bars storytellers return to share their stories

Students from English 100 tell their stories to an enthusiastic audience over Zoom

“I never thought I’d ever be a writer. I wasn’t even good at writing letters. But then I took English 100, and wow, it really helped my communication and writing. I have overcome my fear of reading in a group, too. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to finish what we started, but man, I’m glad we did. So, believe me, never give on up dreams. If I can be a writer, anyone can.”

—Christopher, English 100 class of 2021

With just two weeks left in the fall semester, Professor Kevin Mullen and his students received the devastating news that suspected cases of COVID-19 were spreading through Oakhill Correctional and that their Introduction to College Composition course would be suspended—indefinitely.

Prior to the outbreak, students had been working with Jen Rubin and her team of storytellers from The Moth to prepare their capstone projects: individual oral storytelling performances to be delivered on the last day of class. The outbreak resulted in a facility-wide lockdown at Oakhill that interrupted all classroom instruction and students were crushed at the thought that they might not be able to share their stories as planned.

But Kevin wasn’t about to give up that easily. Once he received word from the staff at Oakhill that the outbreak had abated, he went right into planning mode, and the event was back on. On February 18, students told their stories in a moment of long-awaited triumph in front of fellow classmates and everyone who had worked with the students during the semester: the professors, writing tutors, librarians, storytellers, academic advisors, and financial aid advisors. Students told stories about a range of topics, from childhood snowball fights to family dance parties and getting lost in the forest for days on end. The audience, attending via Zoom, reacted with joy and tears in equal measure.

As Jen Rubin puts it, “It’s always powerful for me to share my storytelling skills with people eager to learn how to shape a personal story and to witness how sharing stories can deepen connections within and between communities. But hands down the most profound workshop experience I’ve had was working with students in the Oakhill writing class.” For her storytelling work with OBB and Onward Odyssey, Jen Rubin will be presented with the Friend of the UW Odyssey Project Award at the May 5 graduation of the UW Odyssey Project Class of 2021.

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