The chemistry of storytelling

What do you wish that people knew about you? What do you want to say about yourself to start out?

Wow, that’s a tough question. I always hope that other people know that I’m open to conversations and I’m open to understanding other perspectives. I think that’s the least I can tell someone else because a lot of times we tend to give ourselves attributes or let other people attribute names, positions, and categories to us. But then we lose sight of the commonalities that exist between us all. When I introduce myself, I try not to confine it to just solid, noun words or phrases. Instead, I try to orient myself in a way that makes others feel comfortable interacting with me down the road. I think that if you want real interaction and real human connection, it arises after your introduction. If you say you’re “so-and-so”, that can sometimes preclude a better interaction. I just want people to always know that I’m open to new perspectives and to hearing other stories.

Is the desire to hear others’ stories what made you want to join Humans of William & Mary?

I don’t think I was that sophisticated back then actually – I was a freshman and I wanted to get involved in student groups. The first photography gig that I got on campus was with the Virginia Informer, which is a newspaper. I don’t think they publish these days, but back then we still published paper copies of our newspaper and we had a website. I discovered them at the activities fair which is how most people discover their interests. I felt like there was always something off with photojournalism though. The process is that they give you a contact and then you email and meet them. You show up and you take a picture. Or it’s some sort of event where you register with the name of your publication and then you just show up and take pictures. There was very little interaction; instead it was a lot of observing from a distance and reporting what was going on. You always want it to be objective, and that objectivity was very contrived. I was behind the lens and behind my camera, and so I was always taking pictures from my perspective. I loved capturing moments that were meaningful to me. I always construed meaning in images, and so I couldn’t isolate myself from that. For example, whenever I take pictures of authority figures, I always take them at a certain angle. But whether or not a person is in a position of authority is very subjective. Also, the pictures I took of events were always very much infused with my own understanding of who is important, what action is important, and what is worth documenting. A lot of that made my pictures unfit for photojournalism.

So when Humans was founded in December 2013, I wasn’t a part of it because it was founded by two seniors. The initial team consisted of their close friends – a couple of photographers that were sophomores and juniors at the time. One of the very first posts was a picture that had my freshman Orientation Aide in it, and so that’s how Humans of William & Mary showed up on my Facebook feed. I saw it, and I liked the page because I thought it was a good idea. I actually knew Humans of William & Mary before I knew about Humans of New York. I researched the whole objective of the Humans campaign and thought that it was a cool way of interacting with the world. Honestly, I didn’t come in with a lot of understanding of what I wanted to do in terms of my social life, but it was Humans that really introduced me to the idea of opening yourself up, storytelling, and the power of narratives. I saw that Humans was looking for new members and so I applied. I think during the interview process, they became interested in me as a candidate because I could make videos. I showed them a video that I made – they wanted to start a new video team so they were actively scouting people that could do that. I specialized in video production during my first year in the group. I made a lot of videos and tried to pull together some video projects. The group at the very beginning wasn’t as close-knit as it is now. We met once a month and it had a very directive style. They would give orders of what should be done, and then they would ask for opinions and we would have a fake discussion about it (-laughing- maybe the old directors shouldn’t see this part). They came from student government backgrounds like the traditional leadership experiences that exist on campus.

Are you glad that the membership of Humans of William & Mary has shifted away from it being mostly comprised of individuals like that?

Yeah, I love that. We started having weekly meetings with the second generation of directors – Steph Faucher and Lynn Nakamura… They wanted the group to be closer together and to function more like a family, and, most crucially, they wanted everyone to contribute creative ideas. They were all about creativity and they still are today. Steph is a photographer and a producer, and she makes videos. Lynn is doing marketing and she’s going to grad school in Richmond. They are both very creative, and both of them are entrepreneurs. They knew what would be a good way to promote their cause. With Humans specifically, it’s not a commercial cause, it’s a communal cause. They used their skills, their shrewd judgment about our campus community, and an understanding of what we needed to steer Humans in a community-oriented direction.

How do you think you’ll apply the principles behind Humans, or the storytelling or photography aspects of it, to your life after college?

My journey in Humans preceded my personal journey of understanding narratives. So, going forward, I think I’ll definitely gravitate towards more personal aspects of it. I might not go out and interview a lot of random people, but I think when I’m traveling or just when I’m in my immediate surroundings, I’ll grow my tentacles out a little longer so that I can touch more people and listen to more stories. I think the curiosity regarding other lives that I developed as a member of Humans of William & Mary will never fade away. This also applies to people who I think I’m really close with like my family members. When I went home, I would be more curious about the stories of my parents and grandparents. My dad would be happy to tell me about his time in college which he never talked about when I was little. I was brought up in a way that emphasized my own growth. China is a place where dramatic changes are happening and have been happening for the past thirty years, so people are very forward-looking, especially with their kids. I think I only discovered that I crave connections to the past and connections to narratives when I was at William & Mary. So I took that back home, documented my grandparents’ stories, and scanned a lot of old photos. And the whole thing has been such a positive experience for my entire family. When I looked at photos of my grandparents from the 1960s when they first got married, I would upload them to my family’s group chat and people would respond so joyously. It was beautiful to see that happen and to experience all of it occurring as a result of my growth in college. Hopefully I can continue doing those sorts of projects and continue to influence more people. To use a Christian analogy, it’s like being a missionary where you’re always trying to spread words and perspectives to others.

I found that to be true too. For my Worlds of Music class, I just had to write a music ethnography about someone in my life who has a connection to world music. My mom has studied West African percussion for years, but I think that if I hadn’t been in Humans, I would have never thought to ask her personal questions about her relation to it. It’s not like she wasn’t willing to tell me about it before, I had just never thought to ask her about it in-depth.

Exactly. Our parents know us for our entire lives, but we don’t really know most of their lives. We are their projects. They transform themselves for us and they become different people for us. But we never got to know the people that they were. Before my mom had me, I’m sure she had a full palette of interests – she used to play five instruments. I’ve never even seen her play those instruments, and it just blew my mind seeing all of their old pictures and listening to their stories. Sometimes things suddenly make sense as to why our parents are who they are. They might have grown up a certain way, or have had a certain experience that I have never heard. It’s amazing.

So switching gears a little bit, you’re going to graduate school in the fall for chemistry. Ever since you told me that you were pursuing a chemistry major, I’ve found it interesting to think about how a hard science like chemistry and Humans would fit together. Did you feel like it was necessary to join Humans so you could experience more of the arts?

Sometimes I think of myself as being an undercover spy because I’m in the chemistry community and spreading the word that people matter more. People matter more than material well-being. But, this is what I find interesting. The community of chemists and the scientific community in general is much more well-cultured and concerned about humanity than an outsider would normally expect it to be. When we think about the commonality of us as people, scientists are still dealing with people primarily. They are in lab environments, they have students, and they have families. The community itself operates as a human community as opposed to a machine. When you want to get published, you need to acquaint yourself with reviewers. When you go to conferences, it’s awkward for sure because they’re all scientists, but they are actual people doing actual things. I think that what’s unique about the scientific community – the image we present tends to evade that aspect. We always want to talk about our achievements and our results because that’s the nature of the profession. We are supposed to be providing guidance and knowledge to other sectors of society. But, I see that human aspect in college when I interact with my professors and other young, aspiring scientists around me, and so I feel much more comfortable. The people in the scientific community are more than just cold knowledge and books, they are actual people. My lab culture is very artistic – one of my friends is really good at drawing, I do photography, my friend Aaron Bayles dances salsa, and we’re all into different styles of music. One of the other graduating seniors is into forensic science, and she’s an English minor too. We are a group of people that value so much beyond science, and this group of people is graduating. I was talking to my professor about how our lab culture is going to change. My professor said, “Yes, I have witnessed a lot of changes. Of course I am very sad and a little bit worried about having a new generation of people come in.” But because our scientific professions are more isolated from our personal and emotional lives, we can sometimes be on the same page much more easily than other types of people. My professor has noticed how even when the lab culture has changed across generations, people still always bonded over science. I believe a bond is a bond. Chemists love talking about bonds. You connect over science. I also think there is inner beauty in the science that we do. I never see it as conflicting, I see it as organically relating. It is one thing in my head.

Something else that I wanted to ask you is if there is any interview that you’ve done that sticks out to you the most as being particularly meaningful or special?

There are so many great interviews, but a couple came to my mind just now because I did them around this area. One was with our campus photographer, Stephen Salpukas He’s the person who has taken most of the pictures that you see on our homepage, wm.edu. He of course had six cameras strapped onto him, and he talked about his career as a photojournalist, taking pictures for magazines, and finally landing his current job as the campus photographer for William & Mary. He talked about the technical aspect and the human aspect of photographing an event. For example, how you gauge expectations, how late you can show up to an event and still be okay, how you can juggle multiple events that are booked in the same time slot, and how you can walk in and immediately go to the place where you can find the best lighting. Again, to him, the technical aspect and the human aspect of photography are one thing. Both of these things are so integral to his life, which is similar to how chemistry and a broader focus on the arts and humanities are to me. He is way more experienced in photography than I am, but I had to take his picture, which was so intimidating – taking a picture of a professional photographer! He was very accommodating though. That was a great experience.

Another interview that I can recall was with a girl named Anna Henshaw, or the segway girl. It was the first interview we published on the website. She really opened my eyes to how much our campus lacks facilities for people who need special accessibility. She goes around campus on a segway, and some people are on wheelchairs. The lack of accessible pathways and entrances/exits really affects your dignity. We all want to be respected as equal beings, but it’s not right how unaccommodating some of the campus facilities are. Sometimes human concerns become second place, which should never be the case.

And then of course, One Last Thing happens around this area as well.

Why did you not want to be a speaker for One Last Thing this year?

More people should have the opportunity, and I don’t think I really need a platform to speak. What is a platform? I think a lot of it originates from consumerism. A one-on-one conversation is good enough for me. There’s no message that I need to get out to people that urgently. The reason why I don’t crave a setting where I can share something intimate with a lot of people is because I do already have a lot of supportive friends who talk to me on a one-on-one basis, and I’m able to recognize that. So, that’s why I think One Last Thing is a good opportunity for other people to have a chance to speak.

Do you think that you’re ready to move onto a new stage of your life or do you wish you had more time to spend in college?

I still remember when I was a freshman, and when the senior year of college seemed so far away. I think I’m ready to move on to the next stage of my life. I tend to see things as a unified whole, as opposed to separated parts. I can both enjoy moving to the next stage of my life, but also stay connected with this community. This community is not a solid thing either, it’s not a rock in the middle of Virginia. It’s fluid, and it’s the people there that I care about the most. A lot of the graduating seniors are going to different places, but William & Mary will always be a base and hopefully it will still be something we bond over long after we graduate. At the same time though, we are more than just our college experiences. We are a similar age and are of a similar generation. We will go through a lot of things together, and we will still have many common experiences regardless of where we end up and what kind of life we lead. That was proven to be largely true when I graduated high school. I was still able to bond with my high school friends because the majority of us went to college. Regardless of where you go, college is something you can bond over, and in the future it will be your family or your job that you bond over. You can always bond over just being people, regardless of the different hats that everyone wears. So, in a way, you’re never leaving any community behind. It’s about how you seek out a community around yourself and how you try to build a community around other people.

 

Do you have any final piece of advice that you would give to current students or graduating seniors?

My final advice would be to listen. When you asked that question, the trees were rattling. Listen physically to whatever is happening around you including people and other perspectives. That applies to myself as well, because it’s something that I have to remind myself of all the time. I don’t think that I’ll ever not have to remind myself of that because it’s so easy to get lost in our own brains. It’s a shame that in America, a lot of the time it’s difficult to access different perspectives. The idea of diversity has been constructed in such a way that makes you feel comfortable, but true diversity is something that is inherently uncomfortable. People should expect and explore that discomfort. America is never a project that’s been well-fulfilled or realized – it’s always in progress. A more perfect union is what people should strive for, and the way to get there is through listening and always taking in different perspectives. When you listen, people become honest about what they feel and think, and what they see and perceive. The whole idea of listening to other perspectives is so old-fashioned and stale, but it’s well-tested and true. The reason that this piece of wisdom is so long-standing and that people are still talking about it is because it’s hard. No one listens perfectly, so then it becomes something that you have to put effort into and make intentional. You should never feel good about the state of openness that you are in, and you should always be seeking out another way of thinking.

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