by Pei-Ru Ko '09
Content Note: This story references sexual violence.
The RAINN National Hotline is 800-656-HOPE and the website is www.rainn.org
I grew up in Taiwan, a small, homogenous island that is more than 95% Han Chinese. It was a safe and predictable childhood, but from an early age I knew that I wanted to go to the United States to meet the world through my education. In eighth grade, when I moved to Massachusetts to study, a caucasian classmate asked, “Why don’t you hangout with other Chinese people? They are always speaking Chinese to each other.” And the answer seemed straightforward to me. “If I wanted to hangout with Chinese people and speak Chinese, then I didn’t need to come to America.” I came too far to hang around people just like me.
I chose Williams largely because it was proud of its student body diversity. Freshman year was a whirlwind, and the entry system was lovely. But a couple months into sophomore year, I felt disillusioned. I saw people who were different from me, but our conversations were mostly superficial. I longed to learn about different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, but mostly I heard complaints about the workload and conversations around weekend parties and sports. Students seemed to hang out in predictable circles: athletes with athletes, art students with art students, international students with international students. Disappointed, I got ready to transfer to another university. All I knew was that “grass was greener on the other side”.
One day, I met up with Steve Klass, at the time Vice President of Campus Life at the college, at Tunnel City Coffee. We sat at a table outside, and I shared my plan to transfer and my desire to find somewhere where I could learn from different students’ stories. Steve quickly interrupted and asked, “But, do you feel like there are stories here?” I looked around. A group of students were huddled together, discussing school work. Two athletes walked by in jerseys, probably heading to the football field. An older gentleman was ordering sugar cookies at the pastry case. People from all walks of life were there, and I saw that everyone must have a story.
I answered, “Yes, of course!”
“Then, can I challenge you to create a time and a place where it is appropriate for people to share their stories?” Steve asked.
This question led me to start Let Me Tell You a Story (Storytime) at Williams in 2007, a program that facilitates students, faculty or staff to share their stories and cultivates a culture around listening. When I ran the program, we would invite the storyteller to spend a week working with the student board to craft their story. The student board’s main duty was to listen generously and be a sounding board for the preparation. The goal for the storyteller was to honestly share an important story from their life. The board would then bake the storyteller’s favorite cookie and facilitate the intimate gathering of 30–70 attendees on a Sunday evening.
I will always remember working with a woman from the class of 2007, a freshman on the basketball team. She was quick to smile, yet there was a heaviness in her demeanor. During the eight hours we spent preparing her story prior to Storytime, I learned the weight of her life. Sitting in Paresky on a quiet day, all I could hear was the humming from the kitchen and this student opening up that she had been raped as a teenager and that the trauma led to her struggle with addiction over the years. I remember her sharing, “I had to leave Williams to go to rehab. Although I’m back, I am afraid of the stigma around addiction. I haven’t told anyone about staying sober, so I just stay in my entry, watching TV and avoiding the parties.” It nearly broke my heart. We talked about deciphering if any part of her story was too raw to share, and I let her know that if by 8 p.m. on Sunday she decided to not share her story, we could just call off the gathering all together.
On Sunday, she showed up. A crowd awaited her around the Paresky fireplace. Her entry, the basketball team and many others came for her story. That night, her honesty and vulnerability connected all of us to her, to each other and to the fact that we all have a part of us that wonders if our imperfections can be fully accepted. Her story healed many of us. I am indebted to her and to everyone who held the container for listening that night.
The diverse stories that came through Storytime taught me about life and the world with topics including body image, adoption, race and religion, mental health, friendship, love, and food. The vulnerability and courage I witnessed and the connection that formed between people of vastly different backgrounds changed my college experience.
Running Storytime taught me that when we share from our heart and are listened to generously, the connection transcends boundaries and heals divides. I came to Williams seeking diversity and left understanding that we are more similar than not. Understanding what binds us together—and feeling safe in our hearts that we are not alone—leads to beautiful things: unlikely friendships, reciprocal collaboration, and empathy. It also seeded the work of Real Food Real Stories, a nonprofit democratizing food culture, I started a few years after graduating.