SpeakOut oral history project documents alumni experiences

by Lucy Turnipseed | 2/8/19 2:10am

Dartmouth’s history is a complicated one, and making the official record reflect the experiences of all students is difficult. Yet that is exactly what the Rauner Special Collections Library’s SpeakOut project has set out to do. The oral history endeavor, which Rauner has worked on since 2015 in collaboration with former Dartmouth LGBTQIA+ Alum Association president Brendan Connell Jr. ’87, aims to recording the experiences of LGBTQIA+ alumni. It was recently launched to the public, who can access the audio files digitally.

“We want the archives to represent the full diversity of the student body in the Dartmouth community,” digital collections and oral history archivist Caitlin Birch said. “We want it to be a place that everyone feels welcome and that everybody can see themselves in, so representation really, really matters.”

The project consists of a core group of student interviewers, who have conversations with alumni who have volunteered to share their experiences on campus. There are currently 20 finished interviews, and the project aims to record 40 to 50 per year. 

“I know it means a lot to the alums,” lead student interviewer Hugh Mac Neill ’20 said, “I think they’re kind of getting their chance to tell their story for the first time and have it be ingrained in institutional memory.”

 Kelly Bonnevie ’87 became involved in the project after discovering it through DGALA’s Facebook group.

Speaking on the importance of contributing to Dartmouth’s historical archives, she said, “I don’t think it’s an absence [of voices like mine] so much as it is enriching to have those voices in any institution.”

While the 1980s were a turbulent time at the College, Bonnevie emphasized in her interview that “activism and work matters, and it can lead to change and make things better for future students and generations.”

Rev. Nancy Vogele ’85, another participant in the project, has worked in the William Jewett Tucker Center as director of religious and spiritual life since 2013. Vogele met with Caroline Casey ’21 last spring for her interview, but she asked to re-conduct it this fall. 

“I had gotten so much clearer about some stuff,” she said.

Vogele’s Dartmouth experience was framed around finding her identity within her different roles. She wanted to figure out how she fit in as a Christian, a student and a woman during a time when the College was capped at 40 percent female.

When she returned in 2001 to talk to the dean for LGBT life at the College after working as the rector at a White River Junction church, she was astounded there was such a position in existence. “It showed me how much the culture [of the country] changed and how much the institution changed,” she said.

She added it is important for people “to see not just the diversity and the struggles but also the triumphs of how various generations of students have dealt with different issues and how the College has responded.”

Mac Neill emphasized that there is certainly not a one-size fits all rubric for these oral histories.

“You have to be aware of your assumptions,” he said. “Sometimes you think an event would be significant in someone’s life and it isn’t. Or you don’t think it would be significant, but it really is.”

Mac Neill has background in working on oral histories and as part of his job assembles a reading list for students to understand methodology for the special type of historical collection.

The training surely came in handy during his interview with Greg Millett ’90. What he described as a smooth conversation revealed aspects of his “ambivalent experience.”

Millett’s goal was “to make sure that at least historically there was some sort of account of what Dartmouth used to be like, juxtaposed to what it’s like now.” In 2011, when he came back to campus for the first time since the 1990s, he noticed the change on campus and the shift in diversity for the better.

“What’s wonderful about this project is that it sort of places in amber, these experiences that people had while at the College,” Millett said. “Some were great and some were perhaps not as great, but it’s great to juxtapose those experiences that people have had in the past to what Dartmouth is now.”

Many alumni mentioned the gratitude they had for their experience at Dartmouth. They referenced anything from the education or financial aid, the hardening confidence it gave them, or the chance to explore and develop.

There was not a sense of “powerlessness” that Mac Neill expected in the interviews. As Birch said, “your goal with an individual interviewee is to give them the space and the time that they need to tell the story that they came to tell.”