When Assistant Professor of History Sara Egge and her students began the oral history project “Centre Goes to War,” they set a goal of interviewing 50 veterans—a number many people thought would be impossible to reach. Now, less than a year after they began, they have interviewed 63 veterans and counting.
The oral history project began in the spring, with students taking Egge’s class on America in the World Wars setting out to interview over 20 veterans of World War II and preserve their stories. A $5,000 grant from the Kentucky Oral History Commission allowed Egge and a group of five students to continue collecting oral histories over the summer.
“I couldn’t have done the project without the grant from the KOHC,” Egge says. “Undergraduate research is something that Centre does well, and grants like this one ensure that students and faculty have the resources they need to conduct this collaborative research.”
Talking with the veterans has been a formative experience for the students involved, including Tory Parker ’16, who took Egge’s class on America in the World Wars and continued her research over the summer.
“Collecting oral histories is a process that grows more enlightening as you delve deeper into it,” Parker says. “Your ability to ask better questions, make more connections and recognize patterns and themes in human narratives of similar experiences becomes clearer as you listen to more and more histories. It is a process that requires a great deal of empathy, patience and just genuine interest in what the person in front of you not only says, but what they lived through.”
Parker came away from the project impacted by the stories of the veterans she interviewed.
“I loved hearing Ronald Van Stockum talk so proudly about the father he never knew dying in the Battle of the Somme in WWI, and David Walker talk about how proud he was to serve alongside women, or Alvin Huston Perry recalling the feeling of liberation after 10 months in a German POW camp—an experience about which he had never spoken,” says Parker.
“I love giving them the chance to talk to someone who genuinely cared about what they did,” Parker continues. “And it constantly struck me that some of us interviewing were the same age, or even older, than these veterans had been when all this had happened to them.”
Devin Baker ’18 enjoyed what the interview processes taught her both about the veterans’ experiences as well as the complexities of listening to their stories.
“Collecting oral histories is a very unique process,” she says. “There were many times that I would go into an interview with questions or points prepared, and I would drop my preparation altogether based on where the veteran interviewed chose to take the interview.
“While you may have an agenda and things you are interested in learning about in regards to their experience, that cannot be the focus of your interview,” Baker continues. “When collecting an oral history, you have to remove yourself a bit, because it isn’t about you. It is about the person you are interviewing and their experiences.”
Baker found the first interview she completed to be formative in cementing her goals for the future.
“My interview with Dr. Paul Sears was one of my favorite moments during the summer. It was the first interview I personally conducted, and it was a big deal for me considering that I would like to go into journalism,” Baker says. “The completion of my interview with Dr. Sears felt like the beginning of my career.”
All of the oral histories and accompanying materials collected through this project will be donated to the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS). The projects completed by students over the summer are available online here.
The interviews of Centre alumni and community members will likely be utilized in the celebration of the College’s Bicentennial in 2019.
by Elizabeth Trollinger
November 11, 2016