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Graduating Digital Storyteller Heralds New Age at the University of Virginia

May 13, 2011 — Kenneth Warren's May 22 graduation from the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education with an Ed.D. in educational technology is a significant achievement for his entire family.

Two generations of women before Warren were not allowed to study at the U.Va. His great-aunt, Alice Jackson Stuart, was denied admission to graduate school in the 1930s because she was African-American, and his mother, because she was a woman, was unable to attend U.Va. as an undergraduate in 1969.

Toward the beginning of his studies at U.Va., Warren took a Curry School course introducing him to digital storytelling. Choosing his topic was the easy part: The story of his Aunt Alice, the first African-American to apply to U.Va.

In 1935, after completing a bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Union University and after completing one year of post-graduate studies at Smith College, Stuart applied to U.Va. to study French as a graduate student. She was rejected, and as a result, the Virginia General Assembly went on to pass legislation creating a graduate school for African-Americans.

Warren fielded questions from the Curry School's Audrey Breen on the eve of his graduation.

AB: What was the inspiration for your project on your Aunt Alice?

KW: My grandfather, Dr. Francis M. Foster, was not only a dentist, but a masterful storyteller. He explained civil rights with shining examples of unsung Richmond heroes, like his first cousin Alice and others in our community who sought to make a difference for the next generations.

He would always encourage me to use my technology skills to take stories from the past into the future. I chose to produce Alice's story because it was directly relevant and meaningful to my family and the institution I was now attending.

AB: What did you learn most during the project?

KW: Alice was highly criticized by the white Virginia media for "unnecessarily rocking the boat" and damaging race relations in Virginia in the 1930's. I learned more about my aunt, her strength, diligence and determination to persevere. From the research I conducted with family members and the papers she donated to U.Va.'s Small Special Collections Library, I learned a lot about the bureaucracy that threatened her thirst for knowledge and the catalyst that helped to create a separate-but-equal graduate school for Negroes at Virginia State University in Petersburg.

After completing this class project, I clearly learned more about power of new media. However, this project also allowed me to authentically engage with history and it further evidenced to me that sometimes boats need to be rocked, and rocked hard, against the tides of oppression that need to be turned.

AB: Knowing that U.Va. did not admit your Aunt Alice, what was the motivation for you to attend U.Va.?

KW: First and foremost, my motivation to attend the Curry School of Education was to have an opportunity to learn and engage with some of the best and brightest educators in the world. These educators include Curry's prestigious faculty, its diverse student body and its amazing staff. The instructional technology program, supplemented with studies in multicultural education, also proved to be a perfect match for my fine arts degree in visual communications.

However, the cultural-historical relationship between this University's past and the past of my family has been bittersweet. Alice was a mentor to my mother, who also, unfortunately, could not attend U.Va. as an undergraduate in 1969 because she was a woman. My mom encouraged me to attend U.Va. as an opportunity to expand my existing paradigms about education, and, of course, fulfill Alice's legacy for our family.

It was an emotional moment when I walked the Lawn in May 2004 to receive my master's degree. She was there in spirit then and, on May 22 when I receive my doctoral degree, I'm sure she will once again be ever present.

AB: What will you be doing after you graduate?

KW: I serve as an academic technology consultant who liaises to humanities faculty at the University of Richmond. This unique position allows me to collaborate with faculty on instructional technology integration while supporting them with emerging tools like iPads, blogs, smartboards and interactive devices for assessment and evaluation. I'm also an adjunct assistant professor and I teach courses concerning digital media pedagogy.

AB: How do you use digital storytelling now?

KW: I believe everyone has a compelling story to tell, whether in an academic or personal context. However, the key to making one's story come alive is through its ability to be shared. Digital storytelling allows for this.

Personally, I use the process as a vehicle for reflective practice, especially when I want to share an event or inspirational moment with others. Producing written narratives through the affordance of new media both amplifies and archives one's experience.

Professionally, I developed and currently lead a digital storytelling initiative at the University of Richmond that seeks to enhance student comprehension of course content through the creation of new media. It also promotes fluency in information technology by requiring students to learn certain skills sets and intellectual capabilities. Thus far this initiative has influenced more than 20 faculty to incorporate digital storytelling in their teaching and, as a result, we've had more 700 students create digital stories.

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