Early this fall, Deerfield Academy launched the Oral History Project in order to document the varied experiences of community members during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project hopes to capture the personal voices of students, faculty, and staff members and preserve them for future generations—something that Deerfield lacked during the 1918 pandemic.
“We were receiving a lot of questions about what the school did during the 1918 influenza and we don’t have a ton of information,” Marshall Carroll, Director of the Library and leader of the project, explained.
The difficulty in finding information about the 1918 pandemic inspired Mr. Carroll to start the project so he could document and preserve the different ways COVID-19 has impacted Deerfield students.
“[This project provides] the ability for us to create history for future generations to understand how we engaged, and what we did,” he said.
History and Social Science Teacher Julia Rivellino-Lyons, who is also involved in the project, agreed with the historical importance of the project. “It’s a really good idea to start a collection that is maintained by this institution so that there’s something really specific that people can turn to,” she said.
In addition to serving as a historical reference, the Oral History project allows people to share their unique experiences.
“[It will tell] different personal stories that people have, whether it’s their own oral history, art, or writing,” Mr. Carroll said. “It’s going to be a really rich and interesting repository for those who want to look back on the history.”
The submission form for the project consists of a list of questions, such as “have you learned a new skill or hobby, or tried something new?” and “how has this experience changed/added to your world view?”
Developing the questions has been an extensive process, involving people from various areas of expertise in the Deerfield community. “We put together a committee of ten people from different departments,” Mr. Carroll said. “We also reached out to some historians, and looked at other oral projects to see what kind of questions they asked.”
However, the questions being used in the submission form right now are merely an initial draft and are always subject to change. “We’re looking to change these prompts probably seasonally,” Mr. Carroll said.
Students and faculty are welcome to submit other works to the project as well, including artworks and writings, interviews, and recordings which reflect the circumstances COVID has posed on our community.
Several students have submitted to the school-directed project, including Justin Ahn ’24 and Jeffery Han ’23.
“I have a love for history, and this could be a small contribution I make to Deerfield’s intangible history,” Han explained.
Ahn also emphasized the historical value of the project, saying, “I think [it’s] a really special thing to be able to participate in—creating artifacts with your own hands.”
Ahn submitted a play and podcast and Han an essay on Turkish languages and Central Asian culture. Ahn’s play features a family struck by COVID, and their struggle to receive adequate healthcare.
“In Korea, a child was denied access to testing because he didn’t meet the qualifications. He wasn’t tested, he died, and later in the autopsy, they said he had contracted COVID-19,” Ahn said. “I wanted to put myself in that family’s shoes.”
Ahn’s podcast explores the pandemic through the lens of politics while promoting the importance of empathy. “It’s important for us to remember that these are people,” he said. “There are people behind these numbers.”
Han’s piece focuses on his experience learning about Central Asian cultures during the pandemic. “I was going to travel to Kazakhstan, Turkestan, and Uzbekistan to see these Central Asian cultures firsthand, but my plans were postponed,” he said.
Throughout the essay, Han also hopes to shed light on the political states of these countries. “In Turkestan, Dungans [an ethnic group] are being attacked for not adopting Turkish cultures,” he explained. “If this happened in the United States, that would be all over the news.”
When asked about the significance of the Oral History Project, Han stressed the importance of personal stories. “In history, we like to focus on big, broad ideas,” he said. “We overlook how people lived.”
Ahn highlighted the impact of this project on the Deerfield community. “We’re going to be able to put together perspectives from so many different students,” he said. “Who is Deerfield? That’s shown best in moments like these.”