Writing a person’s biography can be a form of service, an assignment and even a gift. Combining a desire to improve her students’ writing skills with a desire to encourage multigenerational relationships, Helen Walker, an associate professor of writing at Messiah College, created a unique first-year seminar course. The Chosen Road, offered for the third consecutive year and the fifth year overall, brings together two very different generations through the act of writing.
Walker designed the course to focus primarily on how the choices people make define who they are, especially as Christians. Through the class, students interview Messiah Village residents — people who have made decades of choices. Partnering with Lois Hutchison, volunteer coordinator for Messiah Village, Walker pairs each student with an elder mentor who volunteers to participate.
Students spend a total of four hours during a month’s time interviewing their mentors. At the end of the project, the students write a 10-page biography to present as a gift to each volunteer mentor. “It exposes them to real-world writing, writing for a reason,” Walker said. “I love the idea of writing as a gift.”
For Emily Greenplate ’15, the idea of interviewing her mentor Bill Buchanan made her nervous. Once she met with him, however, the anxiety vanished. “I just sat on the couch and we talked,” she said. “I had a list of questions, but the first visit I think I only got through one. Before I left, Bill told me, ‘I’ve given you an overview. Come back next week with question for more specifics.’”
Ali Sedwick ’15 said she, too, felt anxious before meeting mentor Alice Grace Zercher ’44. Zercher’s warm hospitality quickly put Sedwick at ease. “I enjoy the students, and I believe in the type of education you get at Messiah,” Zercher said, appreciating “the fact that a young person comes and says, ‘Tell me more about that,’ and we connect through that.”
After the interviews, students realized it was time for the next challenge: writing the biographies. Sedwick said she struggled with the assignment in an attempt to satisfy both her professor and Zercher. “Finally, Dr. Walker told me, ‘You can’t write well unless you enjoy it.’ After that, I just wrote it for Alice Grace and didn’t worry about the grade,” said Sedwick.
At the end of November 2011, the students arranged a party at Messiah Village and, one by one, presented the gift biographies to their mentors. What began at the start of the semester as a writing assignment resulted in something much deeper: a relationship of gratitude and reflection between generations. “It wasn’t just a class assignment,” said Dana Newswanger ’15. “It was serious. It was real.”
At the party, students spoke of the bond they had formed with their mentors. “It was nice to create a relationship outside family with someone from a different age group who has so much more experience. I learned a lot,” Greenplate said. “People older than you have wisdom to share, and they are not as different from you as you might think.”
The connection went even deeper for some students. “I felt I’ve met my true grandparents,” Hanh Dao ’15 said.
For Sedwick, the project gave her more respect and appreciation for generations who came before her and for their experiences. “A lot of times, we think [of the elderly], ‘Oh, they’re just telling a story again,’” she said. “But my one-on-one meetings made me realize we should have a respect for those stories.”
Walker says the project has been a blessing to those involved, and she plans on offering the course again next fall. “Because the Messiah Village residents volunteer, I think it shows that they want to interact with young people,” she said. “Of course, it would be great if the students could volunteer, as well, instead of being required to do it. Besides that, I don’t see how it could work better.”
Story by Sushannah Sorensen ’12