The Oregon Higher Education Oral Histories Collection contains the interviews of 33 individuals sharing the histories and their experiences of 11 community colleges in Oregon including Blue Mountain Community College, Central Oregon Community College, Chemeketa Community College, Klamath Community College, Lane Community College, Linn-Benton Community College, Portland Community College, Southwestern Oregon Community College, Tillamook Bay Community College, Treasure Valley Community College, and Umpqua Community College. All of the interviews are available online.
In 2019, I collaborated with Difference, Power, and Discrimination Academy participant Lucy Arellano on an oral history project for her graduate level course AHE 638 “History of Higher Education.” The purpose of the course is to survey American higher education across 200-plus years of history, with a specific emphasis on community colleges. The goal of the collaboration was for the graduate students to conduct oral history interviews with founding members of Oregon’s community colleges, a history not broadly represented in the archival narrative. Arellano and I met to share information about the course, and for me to explain the logistics of incorporating an oral history project within a course. In the years prior, I collaborated with Professor Mina Carson and her “Lesbian and Gay Movements in Modern America” course for an oral history project to interview members of the local LGBTQIA communities. I shared my course lessons plans with Arellano, as well as the oral history collection to which the students contribute the oral histories they conduct.
My work with students on oral history projects is always incredibly rewarding. For communities who have been traditionally marginalized in both the historical record and in historiography, oral histories can be a form of empowerment, a way in which community members can literally add their voice to the historical narrative. In addition, the process of a community sharing its stories can provide personal opportunities for self-reflection, an appreciation for the struggles endured, and a celebration of the community’s accomplishments thus far. I share these concepts with students to frame their oral history projects and to think of oral history interviews as gift. Oral histories can be a gift for both the interviewee who has the opportunity to share their stories and the interviewer who has the privilege to hear them, as well as the archives who then has the honor of preserving and making the stories accessible. With this framework, oral history projects can be transformative experience for students.
As part of the collaboration with Arellano’s class, I met with the students for a two-hour oral history workshop. Prior to my visit, I gave the students a mini-assignment to read the Oral History Association’s principles and best practices, and to ask at least one question. In addition, I requested each student select at least one interview to listen to from the OMA’s Multicultural Voices of Oregon website and make at least one comment, being something learned or a critique. Arellano emailed me the students’ questions and comments the day before my visit so that I could incorporate the answers into my presentation. During my time with the students, I covered several topics, allowed for questions while presenting, and left time for questions at the end of the session. After introductions, I first described what archives are and shared information about my work with the OMA and OSQA, as well as SCARC. I gave an overview of oral histories – in theory and in practice – and reviewed the Multicultural Voices of Oregon website I asked them to peruse. I shared my interview best practices and gave examples of lessons learned from oral history interviews I have conducted. Since one of the goals of the collaboration was to make the interviews accessible via the archives, I reviewed the consent form SCARC requires all interviewees to sign. I engaged the students in a discussion regarding developing interview questions and topics to ask the interviewees and reviewed the plan for the technology they were to use to conduct the interviews. To conclude, I shared an interview checklist for the students to use and explained my requirements for their assignment, which included the submission of the digital interview files, a signed consent form, and an interviewee bio as well as an interview summary. Upon reflection of the oral history workshop, Arellano expressed it “provided an avenue of motivation for [the students], realizing that their end products would end up memorialized in the archives” (L. Arellano, personal communication, August 5, 2019).
After my session, the thirteen students worked in pairs, with one group of three, to conduct the interviews. Arellano determined the scope of the project; she decided that all the students had to select interviewees from community colleges in Oregon. She worked with the class to develop and finalize the interview questions, with the main goal of gathering stories pertaining to the community colleges’ historical foundations. While it was not a requirement for the interviewees to agree to donate their interview to the archives, they were encouraged to do so. At the end of the term, the students submitted all the assignment requirements to Arellano, and she then shared the materials with me electronically. With the students’ work, I created the Oregon Higher Education Oral Histories Collection. All the interviewee biographies and interview summaries are a part of the collection, and the interviews themselves are accessible online to the public.
This collaboration was multifaceted in its benefits. With this oral history project, the students gained firsthand experience as scholars adding to the historical record, the oral history interviewees had the opportunity to share their stories, the archives created a new collection, and future scholars will benefit from now having these histories accessible to them for their research. From Arellano’s perspective, “the multiple components of the oral history project are what make it so engaging. Not only are students reading about the history of community colleges via the textbooks, but they also have a hand in shaping it. Through the process of setting up their interviews they also develop networking skills with college leaders, they practice qualitative methodologies, and they also learn to function within a group (and have support) of their peers. Ultimately it is my hope that students develop a deeper level of engagement and appreciation of history yet be critical of the perspective presented” (L. Arellano, personal communication, August 5, 2019). Arellano intends to offer the course again, and we intend to continue our collaboration. Considering there are seventeen community colleges – with over sixty campuses and centers throughout the state, there are still many stories to gather.