New Kaplan competition encourages Northwestern students to hone in on personal narratives


Megan Munce/The Daily Northwestern

Emily Lane, a graduate student leading a new competition organized by the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. The competition aims to bring students together through sharing meaningful stories.

Megan Munce, Reporter

A new storytelling competition created by the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities aims to bring students together through the sharing of meaningful stories.

This Northwestern Life, inspired by NPR’s This American Life, is a collaboration between the Kaplan Institute and the Office of Residential Academic Initiatives. The project was spearheaded by Emily Lane, a graduate assistant and Ph.D candidate in musicology.

To participate in the competition, students must submit any piece of nonfiction prose related to the Kaplan Institute’s 2018-2019 Humanities Dialogue theme of security. Ten winners will be chosen by a panel of faculty, staff and students to perform their pieces live at a showcase in May. The top three winners will also receive a cash prize.

“Security might be a much more elastic theme than they realize. It doesn’t mean, ‘Is this door locked?’” said Brad Zakarin, the director of residential academic initiatives. “It could be, ‘Do you feel safe here?’ ‘When did you start to feel safe here?’”

Lane said she brainstormed the idea with Zakarin and Tom Burke, the assistant director of the Kaplan Institute.

“Personally I would like to… connect students with each other,” Lane said. “I feel like Northwestern is such a big place and there’s so much going on it’s easy to become insular and only know what’s going on in your own little world.”

Zakarin said the three hoped to take advantage of the space within Willard Residential College to integrate the academic experience with residential living. He said he hopes the experience will be a combination of academic, social and entertaining elements.

Kaplan plans to host several workshops to introduce students to storytelling and prepare them for the competition.

Burke said he’s been impressed by student turnout so far. Last week, he led a workshop where students attended a reading, then brainstormed ideas for their own writing.

“(At) the first event — the storytelling workshop — we had really strong numbers and the people that were there were really engaged with it,” he said. Burke added that the program is an “intellectual springboard” for students to get involved with nonfiction storytelling.

Zakarin said these workshops are designed to have a “low bar” for engagement so that anyone, regardless of experience, can participate in the competition.

Burke said he wants to see some humorous stories, but overall just hopes that students will be able to hone in on and explore their personal narratives.

While this is a pilot year for the initiative, Lane said, she and Burke hope Kaplan will continue to hold the competition in following years.

“I’m hoping that people submit stories that mean something to them,” Lane said. “One of the goals is also to show that everybody has a story to tell and that everybody needs to be able to tell that story.”

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