From left, Ryder Griffith, '21, Julius Wibisono, '20, and Tanairy Ortiz, '19, pose for Dear World portraits. Griffith, Wibisono and Ortiz shared their stories at the Dear World live storytelling event. (Courtesy of Ryder Griffith, Julius Wibisoni and Tanairy Ortiz)

Dear World fosters storytelling, conversations at Lehigh

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A photographer, storyteller and countless stories.

These three components make up the Dear World college tour, which came to Lehigh’s campus Sept. 25 and 26.

Dear World, a portrait and storytelling project that has traveled around the world, asks participants to write a word or phrase on their bodies to represent an event that has impacted their lives. The project has captured thousands of stories over the years and hundreds of colleges have joined in.

“Being at a university is the moment in time that you are creating yourself, and it is a big platform to be able to speak up and talk about things that really matter,” said Cassandra Corrales, Dear World storyteller and producer. “Bringing Dear World and the foundation of the project in connection to each other really, I believe, helps young people’s minds in shaping them and how they might view things and change the way that they act.”

The event took place over two days. On Sept. 25, some members of the Lehigh community attended an evening VIP session that invited the first round of students and faculty to take their portraits. Dear World posted these on Facebook, prompting more people to attend the open photoshoot and live storytelling event on Sept. 26.

Sarah Thompson and Ethan Fields, assistant directors of residence life, worked together with the support of multiple sponsors to bring the event to Lehigh’s campus and introduce a new way for students to have conversations beyond the surface level about their differences and similarities.

“It was so cool because there were some students who walked into the open photo shoot on (Sept. 26), and some were like, ‘I know exactly what I want to write,’” Thompson said. “And then we started talking and their whole thing changed. Then they were like, ‘Oh my goodness, I never thought about things like this before.’ There were some people who were saying, ‘I’ve never talked to anybody about this.’”

Corrales, Thompson, Fields and their “street team” of student volunteers helped participants develop their stories to pick a key moment or quote.

For those who participated in the photoshoot, the few written words prompted a conversation about their stories.

“Crying doesn’t equal weakness.”

Amanda Ferrante, ’20, wrote this phrase across her arms, encouraging those around her to ask about her story and why those words mean so much to her.

“In high school, I would cry. A lot,” Ferrante said. “And then so many people would tell me that crying doesn’t solve anything, that crying shows weakness and to get over my problems and move on. Because all those people said that to me, I don’t really cry anymore, which is not alright. So, I feel like people should cry — it’s a valid response and it happens sometimes.”

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do”

Sarah Stanlick, the director of the Center for Community Engagement, wrote her message in response to a college adviser and a never-ending fight against those who tell her that she can’t or shouldn’t do something.

“When I was looking for an internship after my first year (of college), I talked to my adviser and he said, ‘Maybe you could be a cocktail waitress for the summer,’ because women who are going into international affairs should be confident, cosmopolitan, sexy — and I was none of those things,” Stanlick said. “And he told my friend Yohan that he could work at the U.N. So, I was like, ‘I’ll show you, buddy.’ I think I’ve been making up for it ever since.”

For Raahil Amarshi, ’20, the project was the best way of expressing his long story, which he represented with the phrase, “She had the courage to let me go, but I’ll be back.” This intrigued others to ask him about the story behind those words. 

Thompson and Fields expected around 300 students to attend the live storytelling event Sept. 26. To their surprise, Zoellner’s Baker Hall was filled with a crowd of supportive students, faculty and staff.

The live storytelling event featured Dear World portraits and videos, including ones that highlighted the late ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott, a mother of a victim of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and children rescued from slave labor in India.

The show brought the impact of these stories back to the Lehigh level as four students shared their stories behind what they wrote on themselves at the photoshoot.

Tanairy Ortiz, ’19, was one of the students asked to share her story. She wrote a phrase on her arms about her experience as a Pentecostal Christian and how the death of a friend led her to question her faith.

“I feel really good (about sharing my story),” Ortiz said, “because sometimes I have people questioning why I am a certain way, why I act a certain way, why I post things about why I’m so critical about religion, for example, or of the church. And this is my personal story of one of the reasons why.”

Thompson and Fields hope to continue the Dear World conversations across campus. In addition to releasing the rest of portraits in the coming weeks, the two are looking to create spaces and events for more community interactions and storytelling.

They have also contacted Lafayette College, which hosted Dear World after Lehigh.

“They’re interested in potentially doing a reveal of all the portraits during Le-Laf to show that, even when the animosity is at the highest between the two institutions,” Fields said, “that you can find common threads and understand the humans of each institution.”

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