GFU professors challenge students to connect with community, destigmatize societal labels

COURTESY PHOTO: GFU - Students in a GFU intercultural communication class and a print and digital layout class divided into eight groups, each one choosing its own label to destigmatize.

It's every professor's dream for their students to take the knowledge they gained in class and use it to make the world a better place.

This is what George Fox University public relations professor Amanda Staggenborg and graphic design professor Marvin Eans had in mind when they assigned their students an interclass social awareness project.

The goal: to tell the stories of people harmed by stereotypes and societal labels.

The subjects, Staggenborg and Ean decided, had to be local.

"This is a life-changing moment for them, to really see another person," Staggenborg said. Staggenborg

Students from Staggenborg's intercultural communication class and Eans' print and digital layout class divided into eight groups, each one choosing its own label to destigmatize.

Staggenborg's students conducted research and interviewed the subjects, while Eans's students communicated the group's arguments visually.

Although this is the first year Staggenborg and Eans have collaborated on the project, labels have followed Eans around for decades.Eans

"I dealt with it personally," Eans said.

While growing up, his father struggled with mental health issues and alcoholism. When Eans' parents divorced his father ended up houseless.

"We'd see him bounce around from different types of housing programs," Eans said. "But it was one of those things where he was still my dad."

Eans' dad died last year, but through it all Eans knew his father loved his family.

"It's just sometimes people have these challenges and they become a different person when they're under these influences, like alcohol," Eans said. "But I know who he truly is, (and he) is not those things."

He added that the purpose behind the project was for students to learn to see "people for who they are through the lens of empathy."

"Do we really empathize today?" Eans said, referring to controversial issues such as the pandemic, religion and politics that continue to create division in the nation and world-wide.

"This (project) is a great opportunity to explore this idea," Eans said, and to provide students "the freedom to engage (with concepts) outside the classroom."

Two groups chose to focus on the stigma surrounding houselessness.

One group's project concentrated on the power of rhetoric and the impact it can have on a person's self-image.

"The words we choose to speak are powerful," Amy Hatter, an intercultural communication student, said, adding that the term "homeless" carries a lot of shame.

Hatter's group partnered with Love Inc. on the project, who got them in touch with "Janet," a 74-year-old woman in the organization's transitional housing program.

Contrary to houseless stereotypes, Hatter's group learned that Janet had lived a long, fruitful life before she lost her housing due to rent increases.

The wife of a late pastor, the group described her as intelligent, warm and a woman of strong faith who viewed transitional housing as more than just shelter but also a sanctuary and a place to grow.

"How can we shift the language we use to paint the homeless community in a different light?" Hatter said.

To help rebrand the public perception of houselessness, the graphic designers created pamphlet, poster and fanny pack designs using warm, friendly palettes that invoke positive feelings, such as stability, comfort and hope.

The second group focusing on houselessness empathized learning people's stories before judging them. They asked around 50 people the first word that comes to mind when thinking of houseless individuals. Almost all responses were negative, with 24% of survey participants reporting addiction and 21% reporting Portland as the first words.

"People view it as a very specific situation" where everyone who is houseless ends up living on the streets for the same reasons, Antonio Arredondo, a cultural communication student, said.

To prove this assumption wrong, the group listened to houseless individuals' life stories via the Portland Rescue Center's website.

"I think listening to personal stories and … putting a face and a name and a story to a certain problem can make (houselessness) it so much more human," Arredondo said, adding that "a lot of times when you drive by Portland and you see tents, you're not going to think about how people got there, you're going to think, 'Oh my goodness, look at those people. It could be such a great, beautiful city (without them there)."

"One project isn't going to completely overhaul the entire system," Arredondo said. "That's not realistic. But even just raising a little bit of awareness to people in our class can help."

One group chose to focus specifically on athlete mental health, which members, who are all current or former athletes themselves, said isn't talked about enough or prioritized as much as physical health.

"You're a student athlete — it's expected that you'll have more work," Ty Davis, a print and digital layout student, said. "You're supposed to just get through it because you're supposed to know what you're getting into going into it. But that doesn't take the stress factor out of it."

The group interviewed several collegiate athletes from GFU and other universities, finding that while the interviewees all had their own individual stories, they faced similar challenges with maintaining good mental health.

"We want to reverse that stigma (surrounding athlete mental health)," David said, hoping that the project will encourage people to "be more willing to be open about it."

Another group's project centered around college students' mental health, arguing that people should take depression or other mental struggles just as seriously as physical injuries.

Yet another group discussed hidden disabilities, which included mental health issues like PTSD but also hearing loss, nerve damage and other ailments that aren't immediately visible.

"It's harder for people who have a hidden disability to get help," Beth Wegener, an intercultural communications student, said. "People will often say they're faking it or that it's all in their head, or they don't really have it."

The group's print and digital layout students designed stickers and other artwork to resemble the colors of handicap signs.

One sticker read, "Disabled isn't a curse word."

Other group projects centered on the stigma surrounding women in the workplace, diabetes and conspiracy theorists.

The first group explained that women who are assertive in the workplace are often seen as bossy, as opposed to their male counterparts, who are perceived as having leadership qualities.

Graphic artists created artwork that co-opts the word bossy and gives it a positive spin, seen in their postcards that read, "She's bossy" and "She's the boss."

The diabetes group countered the misconception that people with the disease are lazy or always responsible for their diagnoses. Outlining the differences between Type I, Type II and gestational diabetes, group members explained that the disease commonly develops due to genetic factors, not just because of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.

They interviewed three GFU athletes with diabetes, and all of them reported judgement from others who often assume the breaks they must take during practices and games to monitor their blood sugar are attempts to slack off or signs they aren't good players.

The conspiracy theorist group, who interviewed a combination of GFU staff and students harboring beliefs against the status quo, cautioned people from using the term pejoratively.

Group members explained that calling people conspiracy theorists further alienates individuals with unconventional views and causes them to fear that if they share these views, they will be deemed uncredible in other areas of their lives.

To encourage dialogue, instead of immediate dismissal, the graphic design team created a t-shirt design that reads, "Ask me about my theory on the government."

Due to the overall success and enjoyment of the project, Staggenborg and Eans are hoping to repeat it next year.

"(The project) went beyond an assignment," Eans said. "Everyone was in their element, they were passionate about their topic and it kind of didn't feel like an assignment anymore."

Staggenborg added that "It's really a climax to their college experience and to the year. Instead of remembering college as stressful and (consisting of) papers and studying, they can say that they did something that really connects with the human spirit."

Staggenborg also said she wished she had had the chance to do a project like this when she was a college student.

"It kind of felt like what college is supposed to be," Staggenborg said.

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