Surprises and Stories

India Simmons graduated with majors in Human Rights, International Studies, Political Science, and minors in History, Arabic, and Women & Gender Studies. She is currently preparing to acquire her master’s degree at American University in Washington D.C. 
India presenting at an academic conference
I have always found it curious the way things work out in life. I initially entered SMU as a member of the Women’s Track and Field team, but I soon became medically disqualified and in search of a new avenue to pursue my passions for civil rights and advocacy. One of the best decisions I ever made was taking Modern African History with Professor Jill E. Kelly during Spring of my sophomore year. By the end of the semester, Professor Kelly invited me to work on a blossoming oral history project during the summer with another peer, Carson Dudick. My immediate professional and scholarly thought was, “Sure, why not?!”
And with that I found myself spending the summer as a research assistant, of all things! It was a good thing that Carson and I were only first and second-year bright eyed undergraduate students. We spent the next several months lugging massive bags of tech equipment across campus in standard Texas summer heat. With time, Carson and I found efficient and strategic ways to conduct the interviews across both the university and the city (without panicking several minutes before the participant showed up because we were practically gleaming in sweat). From taking Ubers across the city (with bags of equipment worth our room and board); to being given personal tours through a judge’s own court; to being repeatedly locked out of buildings on Friday evening; to being invited to capture a woman’s story in her family’s home; to enjoying sparkling flavored water and conversating with a Reverend prior to their interview. I never would have guessed the adventures that would come with an oral history research project.
And throughout it, I found I was consistently having the time of my life. Conducting the oral history interviews allowed me to make personal and meaningful human connections with the individuals I was sitting down with. I quickly found myself immersed into the participants’ stories and feelings, and for an hour each day, I was appreciative of having the opportunity to witness another individual reclaim their story, their history, in their own voice and words. Language is a powerful thing, and often when younger individuals of a disenfranchised group find themselves in situations of injustice or unfairness, they may not always be equipped with the words to accurately describe what they are feeling or experiencing. For the majority of my life I have been such an individual, and I know how daunting it is trying to reclaim a space you have the right to or try to vocalize your (unpopular) thoughts. Perhaps without surprise, I found myself becoming emboldened with each story we captured, and over time I felt myself slowly gathering the courage- and words- to properly claim my own space.
Voices of SMU is a long overdue project for the university. Since its emergence two years ago, over 150 individuals have come back to campus (some for the first time in decades) to tell their story, and in doing so reclaiming their space.
But it gets even better- with a team of a dozen staff including faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, the project reached another layer of application, as we began working with offices on campus to improve the lives of minority students at the university. And as this work spread to multicultural organizations and other offices, it also began to spread across the North America continent. During the first initial months, Professor Kelly would often pass along invitations or opportunities to present at conferences or local engagements. And each time she passed along an opportunity, my immediate instinctual thought always appeared- “Sure, why not?!” As the years progressed the excitement remained, and the thought process matured as I began to grasp the depth, importance, and impact of traveling to different places and sharing the project with other scholars and educators. Before I knew it, Voices of SMU had traveled to over a dozen speaking opportunities, from Washington, D.C. to Merida, Mexico. And with that, other scholars and educators often took away pieces of the project with them, and many of color related to the material on a personal level.
I never once anticipated the numerous complexities, layers, and opportunities that would arise from joining Voices. Perhaps the biggest surprise came when the project faculty and staff took a giant chance on me and promoted me to Senior Research Assistant. The new responsibility consisted of leading meetings, managing the first half of the interview workflow, and networking with other campus organizations to find more narrators. I am entirely convinced that my acceptance to graduate school is owed to the development and growth and experience I gained during the two years working for the project. This work has challenged me in numerous ways. For example, I check my own biases when handling disagreements in different speaking engagements. I have also learned priceless skills like learning the ins and outs of project management, the ethical dilemmas and questions that arise from research projects, and when to expand its reach and material. I have gained lifelong mentors and friendships who have redefined my undergraduate experience. As I began counting down the remaining meetings I had left with the team, I knew deep down that I would never find as warm, well-intentioned, and loving a work group as this one.

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