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Penn State Oral History Project Documents International Student Experience

What will happen when future generations want to know what life was like for Penn State’s international students? A new oral history project on campus hopes to address just that.

The International Students Oral History Project is part of the university archives’ mission in the Special Collections Library. There, the university archives, documents, and stores Penn State’s history, including professors’ research.

These materials are important for researchers who use the university archives, or even everyday people looking for some throwback Penn State content. Part of the archives’ mission is also to document and archive student experiences here at Penn State. 

“I always tell people, ‘If you want to know what student life was like in the 50s, here we have a lot of materials.’ We have photographs and different documentation about what it was like to be a student here,” said Timothy Babcock, coordinator of oral history and audio-visual collections. “If someone wanted to know what student life was like in the 2000s, chances are we don’t have a lot of material about that.”

Babcock said oral history projects are particularly important as society becomes increasingly digital.

“Things are on your phone, and when you leave Penn State, your phone goes with you. Oral histories are a great way to get all that information in one package because we learn how the student was personally,” he said. “We learn about what they go through. We learn what it was like to come here and what they do for fun.”

The objective of the oral history project is to fill the current gaps present in the archives. Through the project, Babcock is able to get information from students themselves, which helps document the international experience.

“With international students, we get all that information,” Babcock said. “Finding out what their expectations were, what their realities are, what they thought about this place before they got here — all these things I can’t get from a news article or just from reading something.”

Babcock said it’s crucial to interview and document international student stories thanks to their unique perspective that’s missing from the archives. Penn State already has a lot of information from national students, so Babcock wanted to start a project that fulfilled the university archives’ mission to fully document student life.

“It’s one of the most fascinating things to me, and I can’t wait to ask these questions. Like, ‘How did you get here? You grew up in China, in the Philippines or Africa, or Brazil, and how did you get to Penn State?'” he said. “We’re looking for unique stories and documentation of life here.”

So far, Babcock has interviewed students from Brazil, the Philippines, China, and India. He said he was presently surprised to find that the students thought Penn State did a good job welcoming international students, and they found the community here is very accepting. 

“I was always surprised to hear that because I expected to hear they had to overcome a lot of things here on campus,” he said. “But to hear that people came here from foreign countries and were generally still excited to be here, happy that they made the decision, and still want to remain here made me really happy that Penn State is doing well. I hope that continues and that they were being honest and happy with their decision to come here.”

Babcock said missions like his project is one of the coolest things he does at the library. He used the opportunity to satisfy his own curiosity and find new spots to eat around campus.

“I think that’s one of the best things about the university — diversity. If we were all the same, it would be boring,” he said. “We have people from different cultures living in America, and we don’t represent their history and culture in our archives. In all of our collecting, that has sort of being ignored. Now, a lot of our collecting areas are trying to get voices from these other countries so it’s representative. That’s the next step.”

However, six completed interviews don’t give the library the full picture, or even something close to it. The next step is to expand to the point where the university can work with other students to do oral histories in their own tongues. 

“The university archives have been here for around a hundred years, and we don’t have a lot of things that aren’t in English. That’s true for archives all over the U.S., and that’s a big gap in our collecting,” Babcock said “We have cultures and languages that aren’t part of our archives that are part of our history. It would be awesome to have oral histories in the students’ native languages.”

Moving forward, Babcock has a handful of interviews coming up, and he’d love to get to the point where interviews are recorded in each student’s native language to avoid information getting lost in translation.

“Even when they are talking to me, they are trying to make it sound right in English,” he said. “They have an expression in their country or a way of talking that doesn’t always work in another language, so I’d love for them to have the freedom to just speak openly.”

To learn more about the project, check out its website here. If you are an international student interested in having your story recorded, sign up today.

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About the Author

Renata Daou

Renata is a junior majoring in International Politics and one of Onward State's contributors. She's from Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil and no, she doesn't live in the middle of the Amazon forest. She likes learning new languages, reading, writing, and talking about the one time she went bungee jumping.
Follow her on Twitter @renatadaou to see her rant in Portenglish or e-mail her at [email protected] for serious inquires.

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