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Encouraging Empathy: Narrative 4 at Seton Hill University

Katelyn Stebbins felt “a bit apprehensive about sharing personal stories with someone” she had just met. It was fall of 2015 and she was a Seton Hill University freshman participating in the university’s brand new partnership with Narrative 4, a global organization that works to build empathy through the exchange of personal narratives. She had been paired with a student she didn’t know and encouraged to share a story from her life. To her surprise, Katelyn enjoyed the experience. 

Another freshman, Julia Natalia, first learned about Narrative 4 in her Seminar in Thinking and Writing class. She participated in a story exchange with the people in her class because she “wanted to get involved with something that promoted bringing people together.” 

Fearless Hope Through Radical Empathy

“Fearless Hope Through Radical Empathy” is the vision of Narrative 4. To achieve that, people are put in pairs and asked to share a story from their past in response to carefully designed prompts; it can be funny, embarrassing, or life-changing. The group of participants comes back together and each person shares their partner’s story aloud as if it were their own. It seems nerve-wracking, but there’s no judgement or pressure from other group members. 

"Learning empathy through Narrative 4 allows you to explore a piece of everyone’s lives.”

- Seton Hill student Julia Natalia

Christine Cusick, Ph.D., associate professor of English, director of the Honors Program, and Narrative 4 liaison, said that those who participate “slow down and take time to listen to each other… when people are heard, they feel safe.” A bond is formed not just between partners, but between members of the whole group.

How’d It Get to Seton Hill?

Cusick first learned about Narrative 4 after reading an interview that featured Irish author Colum McCann, who is also the president of the organization. She emailed with the Director of Programs, Lee Keylock, about what it would mean to bring Narrative 4 to Seton Hill. After Keylock came to Seton Hill to train a small cohort of faculty, staff and students, Cusick met with faculty members to discuss how Narrative 4 could meet certain course objectives. Since then, groups throughout campus have participated in Narrative 4 story exchanges; the organization’s values inspired a new Empathy and Storytelling class, and students of the Musical Theatre Vocal Performance and dance classes have chosen people whose stories they thought were worth sharing and created performances about them. 

At the beginning of the school year, Seton Hill welcomes students into its mission and introduces the values of Narrative 4 as one of many ways to live the mission. Cusick said that, “we need to be mindful of welcoming students from all backgrounds and perspectives into our Setonian community.” Narrative 4 is a way in which new students can feel more comfortable and get a sense of community.

Katelyn, a biology major and psychology minor, is now a senior at Seton Hill. Last year, she participated in Narrative 4 again, but this time as a student leader. She taught freshmen about the purpose and goals of Narrative 4, explained the story exchange, and led a discussion afterwards. Julia, a junior English literature and secondary education major, was a student leader two times and has participated in multiple story exchanges, including the most recent one in October 2017. “Everyone has a story about them and learning empathy through Narrative 4 allows you to explore a piece of everyone’s lives,” she said.

Hopes for its Future

Narrative 4 has only been at Seton Hill for two years now, but that doesn’t mean Cusick isn’t already thinking of long-term goals. She believes that “we’re at a place where we’re ready to move outward.” The first stop is the city of Greensburg, which is where Seton Hill, the first school in Western Pennsylvania to participate in Narrative 4, is located. 

After that, Cusick hopes that Narrative 4 can reach the city of Pittsburgh and be incorporated into other colleges or even high schools. This can build empathy and stronger relationships between the people of these cities, and in turn help form closer-knit communities. Part of Seton Hill University's mission is to transform the world, and Narrative 4 is a way to do just that.

Alexandra Gipson is a junior creative writing major, Spanish minor and marketing communications intern at Seton Hill University.