UCI students document the community’s connection to the sea through an oral history project
From Megan Cole
A photo essay telling the story of the Japanese-American farmers living in the Orange County’s coastal area. A series of digital portraits of marine life paired with habitat loss warnings. A children’s book with two helmsmen on the UCI crew team. A podcast about whales. These are just a few of the student-led creative projects that emerged from Stories from the Sea: An Oral History Project, a year-long UCI Humanities Center program designed to train students in different narratives about the relationship of Southern California to the oceans collect, create and curate. Under the direction of the director of the UCI Humanities Center, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, the program started in autumn 2020 with 35 students.
“The Stories from the Sea project is inspired by the Oceans theme of the Humanities Center,” says Wu. “Seas and seas evoke strong emotional associations, and we’ve tried to capture some of these meaningful stories. Additionally, the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation was keen to work with the UCI, especially with our students, to record and share stories about our local community. This was a new approach to community collaboration. “
The Newport Beach Public Library Foundation, the Balboa Museum, and the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples were just a few of the program’s host institutions. The Newport Beach Public Library Foundation played a particularly important role in shaping the program. In addition to helping plan the program, her team secured two grants from the California Humanities and the Isidore & Penny Meyers Foundation to support the students.
“These oral history projects are multimedia, cross-generational ways to document community members’ firsthand accounts of local coastal areas,” said Kunga Wangmo-Upshaw, program director of the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation, at a recent symposium that culminated of the program celebrated. Wangmo-Upshaw said that this work was vital because “here in Southern California the oceans have always been the center of community life.”
During the fall and winter, students worked closely with faculties and staff at the UCI Humanities Center, Center for Storytelling, Libraries, the Department of History and the Literary Journalism Program to improve their reporting, interviewing, archival research and curating skills on their projects . The students were then matched up as in-house storytellers with local institutions to begin collecting and researching ocean-related narratives. A handful of students worked independently on their projects without a host institution and worked off their interviews.
Paul Wormser, director of the Sherman Library and Gardens – a local Pacific Southwest history research library and one of the program’s community partners – believes students’ Stories from the Sea projects have been instrumental in shifting local stories .
“Newport Beach is a rapidly changing area,” says Wormser. “Documenting the memories of people who have lived here for decades is so important in capturing memories and preserving the untold story of this community before it fades.”
To that end, Orange County’s UCI Research Librarian and Regional History Curator Krystal Tribbett taught student interns the archiving, cataloging and curating skills necessary to not only share their projects with the wider community, but also to empower future generations receive.
“Once we unearth oral records, it is crucial to preserve them because they offer a wonderful opportunity to fill in historical gaps,” says Tribbett, adding that the UCI libraries keep the archives of the Stories from the Sea projects of the Will be students. “These projects allow us to hear the voices of those who live, work and interact with the ocean – voices that tend to be underrepresented and marginalized in the historical records we have. It is really valuable to hear their experiences first hand. “
Kaye Bilbao Regalado, literary journalist and Stories from the Sea intern, participated in the program in hopes of amplifying underrepresented community voices while exploring her dual passion for storytelling and marine life. She interviewed staff at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC), a nonprofit organization in Laguna Beach that rehabilitates marine life, and created digital portraits of their life seals, coupled with environmentally friendly advice from PMMC staff (pictured above). For Regalado, the experience was both therapeutic and informative.
“At the community level, there are times when people are stuck at home, times when people most yearn to reconnect – not just with the outside world in general, but more so with nature,” says Regalado. “The project” Stories from the Sea “is a narrative bridge back into the wonderful, huge ocean world that many have missed in these isolated times.”
The deputy director of the literary journalism program Patricia Pierson, who both taught the students the reporting last fall and is one of the directors of the program, appreciates that the Stories from the Sea project has generated not only a wealth of creative historical work, but also community -Members brought together in an otherwise isolating year.
“Members of the community were able to come into our classrooms and share their knowledge and expertise with our students, which I think was a really enriching experience for everyone,” says Pierson. “Others made connections with faculty and students they might never have met or spoken to if it hadn’t been for this program. A really unexpected silver lining for all of us was the meaningful and enriching connections we all made as part of this diverse learning community. “
In the near future, Wu looks forward to developing additional programs and internships that aim to build connections, strengthen relationships with the community, and communicate across barriers. Ultimately, Wu adds, these experiences are critical to the academic and professional development of students and to the preservation of the community’s history.
“Through this program, students developed connections with educational and community organizations, and at least one of them received a summer internship from those connections,” says Wu. “This was such an empowering experience for the students, especially in a time of distance learning. The Stories from the Sea project enabled students to connect with each other and with members of the community. Through these connections, the project was able to preserve and share meaningful stories from the sea. “
Click here to view the stories recorded by the Stories from the Sea student attendees.