Unlocking Her Story: Engaging with First-Year Students

Aug. 15, 2017—
Sarah Payne is no stranger to expressing herself creatively. Growing up, she loved writing. That love propelled her into journalism school, where she also grew to love layout and graphic design. Now she is the marketing coordinator for the Student Affairs Creative Studio, where she gets to combine her creative passions on various projects which include building interactive websites for student groups, co-developing social media guidelines for student affairs staff and animating promotional gifs for use on Facebook.

Payne has also been able to share her skills as an instructor at Oregon State. She co-taught a U-Engage course in fall 2016. U-Engage courses are offered to first-year students to facilitate a successful transition to college, and help first-year students identify OSU resources and opportunities by guiding them through the exploration of a real world problem. 

Payne was approached by colleague Susan Bourque, who manages the Craft Center in the Student Experience Center. Together, Payne and Bourque created a U-Engage course called Unlocking Your Story, which revolved around the theme of finding identity through artistic expression on campus — what seemed to be a natural, if not perfect, fit for Payne.

“It sounded like a lot of fun and something I wouldn’t, as a student affairs professional, always have the chance to do,” remarked Payne about why she jumped on the chance to instruct the U-Engage course with Bourque. “I don’t really get to engage with more than a few students on a daily basis, so it was an awesome opportunity to get to know a different side of campus — the more academic side — as well as some incoming freshmen, and make their transition to OSU just a little bit easier.”

Through Unlocking Your Story, Payne and Bourque showed 22 first-year students where they could find their artistic place on campus. Together, they discovered different venues on campus — the music department, the theater department, the Craft Center and even offices associated with Orange Media Network. The students also kept creative journals, which became another place for them to express themselves artistically.

The point of the course, for both Payne and Bourque, wasn’t about evaluating student performance so much as it was about creating a space for students to feel comfortable finding their own creative expression. “This class, hopefully ... helped students find a place, even if it wasn’t academic, where they could continue their art and feel confident about it,” Payne said. 

Her students had the chance to explore a full range of artistic impulses as part of their final project. One student wrote a song and performed it. Another student decided to record a monologue. Still another did a spoken word poetry performance about her Chinese-American identity — which Payne thought was a very powerful moment. “To see her open herself up in front of 24 strangers including Susan and myself was special. It felt like that with every single one of them, too. They all shared a piece of themselves willingly," Payne said. 

Payne learned just as much from this teaching experience as her students did. She’s always considered herself a creative person, but knew her strengths lay in writing and design. But when the class visited the Craft Center to make ceramic mugs, Payne made one, too. “My mug, compared to everyone else’s, looked amateurish,” Payne laughed. “I was sitting there, thinking these are students who are a decade younger than I am and I can learn so much from the care they take or their attention to detail.” 

Sitting there, working on her mug while the rest of the class smoothed theirs, making beautiful shapes and carefully-sculpted creative designs, she had an “a-ha” moment. “It was almost as if I had to re-unlock my creativity. Just watching the different ways my students approached things made me think about the different ways I could look at them, too.

“That’s what is really special about U-Engage classes,” Payne continued. “Not only do students get to learn from a wide variety of different academic professionals with different experiences and backgrounds, but we (the professionals) also get to engage, and learn, with students.”