Stories of Innovation: The College Project Podcast

Robert Jersak, Faculty – Communication Studies, Century College
David Engen, Faculty – Communication Studies, Minnesota State University Mankato

On August 17th, 2018, we officially started work on our student-produced podcast series about navigating, surviving and thriving in college. Interest in educational podcasts is exploding, and we began this grant-funded project with seven student producers and no small amount of personal excitement and curiosity from our colleagues.

We say we’ve just started the work, but it actually began back in the summer of 2014 when we joined a small group of students in their new student seminar course at Century College.  We were in the class not as instructors but as documentarians Рour job was to listen and bear witness to the start of their college journey.  We spent ten weeks with the eleven students from all walks of life trying to get started in college.

(Left to Right): Yuliia Lhouska, Robert Jersak, Darvin Turner, Van Damme Yang, Will Meadows, Iyanna Brown, Mohamed Mursal, Dave Engen

They believed in college and saw it as the path to a better and more stable life.  We believed that, too, but we’ve had our doubts from time to time. College is not working as well as it should.  Too many students are starting college but not graduating.  Too many students feel marginalized in college.  Too many students are plagued by self-doubt and a general feeling that they don’t belong.  There is much good about college, but there are often disconnects between what we want college to be and what students actually experience.

So there we were in the summer of 2014. We invited the eleven students in the class to share their lives with us: their joys, challenges, and fears.  We sent them home with high-quality audio recorders and questions to prompt their responses.  They returned to campus with recordings that helped us step into their shoes and think about their lives in new ways.  We also interviewed each student for over an hour, participated in the class, and at the end of the summer, we had well over 50 hours of recordings, hundreds of photographs, and even more questions about our work as educators.

We put together a physical installation of our project and called it Dreaming by Degrees.  The installation was intended as an immersive listening experience for anyone interested in spending time with student voices.  We presented the installation four times at Century College for different audiences and once at an academic conference.  There would be no podcast project without our work in the summer of 2014. We invite you to browse through their SoundCloud playlists or watch the animated short films about their initial definitions of college.  If you do, you’ll get a sense of the themes and issues that became the driving force behind our Shark Tank grant application.

The students we met in 2014 changed us in some key ways.  Their voices and their hopes and dreams challenged us to think about our role as critically-engaged educators and made us better advocates for student needs.

(Left to Right) Tanita Cronk, Malena Vang, Monte Brown, Marko Milosevic, Sontiana Brandts, Ana Leyva, and Priscilla Yang

The Dreaming by Degrees project in 2014 did something else, too: it made us realize just how powerful student voices can be in communicating and understanding the college experience. We mean voice here as a perspective with the immediate quality of speaking across time and space into our headphones and into our consciousness.  We wanted others to experience what we experienced, and we wanted others to learn from college students the way we had started to learn.

And so the idea for The College Project Podcast was born. Why not tap into the power of audio storytelling and the increasing popularity of podcasting to foster a culture of advocacy and mentoring among students?  Fortunately, word of innovation funding grants through Minnesota State reached us and looking over the previously-funded projects, we debated whether or not the panelists would see our work as a fit for the grant. We applied for just over $20,000 to purchase audio equipment, to train students in audio production, to pay students for their time, and to involve an internationally-recognized organization, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, to provide guidance along the way.   We proposed creating eight 20-30 minute podcast episodes, all of which would be led by student voices and perspectives.  On April 12th, 2018, we presented our seven-minute pitch at the Shark Tank Open.  Then we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.  The good news came a few weeks later, and it was time to get started.

On August 17th,¬†we began training seven student producers in the art of audio storytelling and podcasting.¬†¬†They are learning how to craft and narrate their personal stories about college in ways that can reach and help other students.¬†¬†They are being taught how to conduct professional audio interviews so they can interview experts and scholars in higher education.¬†¬†And they are gaining hands-on experience with audio documentary tools to create unique and compelling audio works that will be included in episodes.¬† These audio¬†pieces include ‚Äúsound walks‚ÄĚ through inclusive campus spaces, brief interactions with community members about college, and¬†recorded reflections as they make their way between college and home.

Under our guidance, but with their leadership, the College Project Podcast will be in production throughout the 2018-2019 academic year. ¬†After completion, it is our hope that the podcast will be incorporated into first-year seminar curriculum by instructors throughout the Minnesota State system and beyond. ¬†While of interest to all students, the podcast will place particular emphasis on first-year students who often feel marginalized or out of place in college — first-generation students, students of color and non-traditional students, just to name a few.

Even the best podcast series can’t fix all that needs fixing in higher education, nor can it remove all challenges in the lives of our students.  But we believe, and research suggests, that the sharing of stories can help students find their place in college and take greater advantage of the support colleges have to offer.  We are honored that Educational Innovations found this project worthy of funding and thrilled to be working with a remarkable group of student podcast producers.  This work began years ago, and it continues today as we try to help increase student retention and student engagement, while potentially, powerfully impacting the journeys of our students across the Minnesota State system … and beyond.

Do you have a story about a campus innovation you‚Äôve been working on?¬† Consider submitting it for publication to ‚ÄúStories of Innovation‚ÄĚ!¬†¬† Contact Stephen Kelly, Open Education and Innovation Program Coordinator, at for more information.

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