Student finds voice through digital storytelling

Authenticity powers remarkable student digital story

Rebecca Young for Life, for Schools, Higher Education, Schools (K-12) 0 Comments

First-year BFA Film student Sara Hernandez Vallejo created this moving video as part of her first film class at the University of Central Florida’s School of Visual Arts & Design.

As a full-time associate instructor and Graduate Scholar in the film production program at the University of Central Florida’s School of Visual Arts & Design, Orlando, Lisa Peterson has the privilege and challenge of leading the very first film class that incoming Film BFA students experience.

Peterson is an accomplished film professional with credits as an associate producer, line producer, production supervisor, and production manager on numerous Hollywood productions. She also completed facilitator training with StoryCenter, which has led her to, “always look for ways to integrate digital storytelling into my curriculum.” (Check out our story with StoryCenter founder Joe Lambert).

Peterson explains, “I have found great success with making the first three class sessions in this course about creating digital stories. This involves their writing narration, hearing feedback through the use of a story circle, and using WeVideo to put it all together. In the fourth class session we screen everyone’s work.”

One student’s recent work struck a particular chord for Peterson. First-year BFA Film student Sara Hernandez Vallejo admits that at first, “I struggled to find a story good enough that my professor and peers would understand who I am or what shaped me.”

Ultimately it was headline news that provided Sara’s inspiration. “President Trump announced his decision to put an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This would cost me everything. With DACA, I am able to work, attend school, and feel like a productive member of the society I grew up in.”

Sara describes herself as, “a “DACA-mented” student from Florida. Born in the city of Salamanca in Guanajuato, Mexico, she and her family relocated to the Southwest region of Florida in 1997, when Sara was three years old.

Now aged 23, Sara explains the challenge she faced with her project. “It was difficult not to include every detail of all those years past. Aiming for a video less than 3 minutes challenged me to create a concise recollection of what I’ve faced and the feelings I have not always been able to share. I wrote and rewrote to satisfy myself as a writer, then practiced saying it out loud until the words felt comfortable and met the timing. I had to cut long descriptions and metaphors, but left the meat of the story.”

She began with the audio. “I felt ready to express myself, but was not prepared to find that my voice broke and tears began to fall as I tried to say the first sentence into the microphone. Two tries later, I had teary eyes and two less-than-perfect recordings. I had to continuously listen to myself in order to extract the parts that were most understandable. I also decided to add a background ambiance track instead of music.”

Sara then considered the visuals. “I called my mom and asked her to send me pictures of my childhood. Unfortunately, there weren’t many. I chose the only baby pictures of me in Mexico in my possession, childhood photos of my family and I, and pictures of my high school graduation that would coincide with the timeline in my digital story. I also opted for some stock photos to help my audience get a sense of where I had been and create visual metaphors to replace some of my written descriptions such as barbed wires and fences. I enhanced two of my own photos with text, hoping to reiterate my points about forced and personal identities.”

Sara says the project was an opportunity to, “express the alienation and separation I have felt towards my nationality and living in the US, as well the courage I gained in stepping out of the shadows. It wasn’t a story meant to gain pity, but rather understanding of the life I live and difficulties I face.”

“The amount of fine-tuning, adjusting, and just listening to my instincts was essential in making this piece. I was also very happy to have received the feedback from Professor Peterson and my peers that I did. I was humbled by how responsive and empathetic they were to the story I had to tell.”

Peterson says, “Sara’s piece is exceptionally artful in its pacing of voice and images, selection of images, and the authenticity of her voice, meaning her truthfulness and sincerity in her writing, recording and images. It was obviously from the heart and it moves me every time I see it. I am so glad that she is willing to share it beyond the classroom and I am very interested in seeing where she goes as a filmmaker and a writer, since her courage and fearlessness in telling the hard story is rare.”

Peterson’s curriculum reflects the positive impact digital storytelling can have on students of all ages. As she explains, “In the classes in which I have assigned the creation of a digital story, students have achieved several goals. They bond together as a group through the sharing of intimate stories and feelings. They are better listeners and more attentive for the rest of the semester. They get a basic understanding of narrative and the potential of intentional combinations of sound and image. It also builds confidence in their ability to tell a story with simple tools and it reinforces three act structure and narrative awareness. And maybe best of all, they get a sense of the universality of the human experience.”