CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO., Oct. 26, 2015 – Tony Anderson, a freshman communication studies major from Columbus, Ohio, said the #SemoSkinDeepProject that students in SC155 “Interpersonal Communications” took part in last week “really shapes our identities in the way we think about ourselves and what others think about us.”
Anderson chose the words “faithful,” “king” and “conqueror” to tell his story. It is now part of a photo montage bringing to light what’s on the hearts and minds of students as they explore the power of words in an anti-bullying and experiential learning exercise.
The montage is currently displayed on the windows of the University Center dining area where it will remain through Oct. 30. Room is still available on the montage for others not enrolled in the class who would like to contribute to the project as well.
“After viewing the montage, I am hopeful that students will look past external factors like race, gender, social class, body size; beyond ‘Skin Deep,’” said Jeanne Harris, instructor of communication studies. “By participating in the project, I hope that they will see themselves in each other’s words and realize that they are actually more similar than different in their shared humanity. With that understanding, they can learn to reach across their differences to build a connection through their words.
“The activity asks students to consider how words shape us as individuals — how the words others use to describe us can impact us, and how the words we use to describe ourselves can empower us,” she continued. “It asks them to consider how words can be used to create empathy and connection, and asks them to consider their own responsibility in their use of words,” she said.
Students in the class chose a word or words important to them – those describing themselves or an experience impacting their life, said Harris, who spearheaded the project. The words also could have been those used against them, and they then could choose another they feel is more accurate. The words also could describe something that frustrated or inspired them, or made them happy or sad. Generally, the words chosen were to have meaning and tell a story about themselves.
Students wrote the words on part of their body, on a piece of clothing or something they held, or on the classroom whiteboard. They also had an opportunity to submit their words into a folder with total anonymity. A photo was taken of each message, and they have been combined into the montage, now up for campus and public viewing.
The project will continue as students in the class observe those viewing the montage and reflect on their experience as part of the project in their weekly Moodle forum, Harris said.
Several forms of social media – Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – are being used to collect student observations of the project with #SemoSkinDeepProject. A video compilation of the images photographed last week also is available on YouTube at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pjk_ckbXn30.
Harris says some of the students in the class will use their “words” to create an anti-bullying public service announcement sponsored by the student organizations, COMMrades and Lambda Pi Eta, the communication studies honor society, to be aired on Real Rock 99.3, Harris said.
Kelly Forhan of St. Charles, Mo., a senior public relations major and president of Lambda Pi Eta, said, “I think it’s a really empowering project. So many college kids are constantly put down, and we all need to stop and take a moment to think about our positive features and how we view ourselves. I think this sends an awesome message to everyone.”
Ashleigh Taylor, a sophomore global languages and cultures major from St. Louis agreed.
“It shows people that they can be more positive about their positives and their negatives,” she said.
Maddie Lebeter, currently serving as an SC360 special projects teaching assistant and enrolled in “Relational Communications” this semester, is responsible for the project’s title, “#SemoSkinDeep.” She says the project built students’ confidence and the ability to reach out to others.
“You can read about the theory all day, but till you apply it, it doesn’t mean anything,” she said.
Caroline Holland, a sophomore journalism major from Cape Girardeau, said, “I’m loving this” project. “It’s another way to express ourselves.”
She chose the words “ugly duckling” to describe her childhood years and “swan” to illustrate the person she has become.
Amber Okunrinboye of Florissant, Missouri, a sophomore health sciences major, pre-occupational therapy, added the #SemoSkinDeepProject “gives people an opportunity to express their voice in a different way.”
Photos within the montage show students with words they have written on their arms, hands, face or back: “Innocence Lost – but I am restored,” “Confident-Conceited,” “Victim-Survivor,” “Worthless, worth it,” “Mom-Health,” “Resilient” and “Anxiety, Self Harm-Survivor, Strong,” among many others. Below the photo montage are words other students submitted instead of being photographed. Among those words are “freak, sensitive, anorexia, immature, beautiful, protective and jokester.” Another includes the word “smart!” with the word “nerd” crossed out.
An American and a Ukrainian student teamed up in a photo in which their arms meet. Written on one student’s arm is “Carpe” and on the other’s is “Diem.”
The #SemoSkinDeepProject originated from a YouTube video created by a young man not associated with Southeast after he lost several friends to suicide due to verbal bullying. He provided a video montage of individuals revealing their deepest struggles by writing a word on their body. After watching the video during an in-class discussion on verbal communication, two Southeast students collaborated on a gift for Harris that took the idea a step further.
“They created two boards: in one they posted pictures of themselves, their bodies marked with the words others said about them. In the second, they posted pictures of themselves marked with their own words of self-description,” Harris said. “For their project, they wanted to negate hurtful words said about them by their residence hall mates and use their own words to define themselves. The experience of choosing the words and creating the photos impacted them deeply, as they struggled to bypass the words used by others. It took courage to reveal that place of hurt; but in doing so, they were able to create their own definition of who they are and overcome the labels imposed on them.”
Harris says the #SemoSkinDeepProject has multiple layers.
“At first glance, it appears to be a reflective exercise for the participant; and, it is,” she said. “For the victim of bullying it’s a chance to set the record straight. For the person feeling isolated or anxious it can be a way to communicate what is on their hearts. For the survivor, it can be a way of marking the end of the journey.”
The project also is important for the audience.
“For the observer, it can be an exercise in empathy,” Harris said. “The bully may hear spoken words echoed back; the mentor may realize the actions motivated by their words; it can be a source of comfort for the hurting or an inspiration to those struggling to overcome adversity; perhaps it provides a sense of connection to those feeling like they are different than everyone else and simply don’t belong.”
For the Southeast campus, the #SemoSkinDeepProject can generate a human connection that manifests itself in the way students relate to each other, she added.
“By experiencing empathy for their peers, they begin to understand their responsibility for generating respectful and considerate communication,” she said.