“One story at a time,” is the unofficial motto of the new online project dominating campus, Humans of Williams, an innovative vehicle through which the stories of the College’s students, faculty and staff are told. Via a Facebook page that has racked up well over 1000 likes, Humans of Williams offers snapshots celebrating the diverse individuals of the Purple Valley, from College faculty and staff, to athletes, mathletes and activists.
I sat down with its founder Susie Paul ’16, an amiable, energetic student who revealed she carries her signature Canon camera in her bag most of the time, to chat about the idea whose actualization has generated much hype and provoked thoughtful dialogues within our community since its launch.
The page uses portraits and snippets of interviews to exemplify the diversity of thought at Williams, an idea that intrigues Paul. “I could not help but to get to know their stories, histories and their backgrounds,” Paul said in reference to the staff at Williams, individuals who despite their hard work often go without acknowledgement. She features some of these workers, as well as students and other members of the College community, on her page.
Ever since Humans of Williams joined Facebook, it has been a powerful tool for storytelling. Paul believes that everyone has “this really great story to share,” and her own story is no exception.
When Paul was just four years old, her family left Bangladesh and moved to New York City. They had won the visa lottery and Paul’s dad, who has a degree in agronomy, rejoiced at the thought of his daughter achieving higher education in the United States. However, with hopes of a better future for his family came sacrifices. Paul’s father, a professional with more than 25 years of education, took a job in food services to support his family. Her dad’s job, Paul said, was one of the elements that sparked the idea for the Humans of Williams project.
“I see my father in the dining hall workers. When I first got to campus, it got to me that not everyone paused to converse with the staff that they met,” Paul said. “If you think about it, they are doing work that is so labor intensive, so difficult and so tiring. My dad does the same work, day in and day out, back home,” she said.
Paul’s project is based on Brandon Stanton’s famous photoblog Humans of New York. Paul recalled that over winter break, she began to think about how talking to people and taking their portraits could be such an easy and interesting way of storytelling, like Stanton’s work.
The day Paul began Humans of Williams, Dec. 26, 2013, was the day she spotted Stanton on the six train. “I thought, if one guy can run Humans of New York alone, then surely I could run Humans of Williams,” she said. They had met previously when Paul interviewed Stanton for an article in her high school’s newspaper. Although Paul did not post on Dec. 26 – she waited until the first night of Winter Study – the inauguration of the page held a strong significance for her. By sharing the stories on Facebook, Paul is confident that they will reach many students.
Although Paul’s original goal was to feature the faculty and staff at the College so that students can “at least learn all of their names,” the influx of students wanting to be featured was huge. Regardless, she is happy to share these stories and enjoys thinking that students may put them to the familiar faces they see around campus.
In addition, Paul sees her posts as a space for social commentary. One of the stories that she was most hesitant to post was that of Laini Sporbert, an educator for Health Services. Sporbert’s post, in which she voiced a strong opinion against heavy drinking, addressed different attitudes towards drinking at Williams.
Because this post might not have been well received by her followers, Paul considered whether to post it or not for a long time. She ended up doing it, recognizing that various contrasting opinions should be voiced as an honest representation of the College community. “My friends were incredibly supportive when I needed them to be. I was afraid of losing followers, people who didn’t want to hear that critique or people who didn’t believe it to be the case,” she said. “I’m glad I haven’t and I hope we can use that quote to continue conversations that Peer Health and Health Services have started.”
With this project, Paul wants to give a “voice to the voiceless” and thinks that it would be beneficial if these opinions and topics sparked conversation among the Williams community.
“I do not mean to portray Williams as all athletes or all activists because I know there’s more to this school,” Paul said after our interview, already scouting Lee Snack Bar with her Canon at her side. She stopped to interview a girl reading at one of the tables, and on the way out, couldn’t resist asking the Girl Scouts selling cookies on the steps of Paresky for a photograph.