At first glance, Courtney seems to be a typical Northwood student. She’s an energetic 20-year-old woman with a bright smile. She has a great grade-point average in the University’s accelerated undergraduate program. She’s involved in a host of activities. She holds a part-time job.
A closer look, however, reveals a more complicated story.
“At the age of 7, I started experimenting with self-harm,” Courtney revealed at Human Library™, part of an international movement to promote tolerance, celebrate differences, and encourage understanding between people who come from different lifestyles or cultural backgrounds. “When my mom died, I started biting and scratching myself. One day, I bit my arm and drew blood, and I was just so glad that I didn’t feel sadness anymore. I felt ... satisfied.”
Each Human Library revolves around people such as Courtney willing to serve as a “human book.” Northwood’s first such event took place in April, during Celebrate Diversity Month, with seven people volunteering to share their stories. Four of them were students. One was a faculty member. Two others were members of the community.
Each presenter sat at a small round table inside Northwood’s Strosacker Library and shared a personal story with listeners. Most listeners sat quietly and let the story unfold, occasionally asking questions or reacting to dramatic details. Some listeners sparked conversations, especially if the story veered close to their own life experience. Every 5 to 10 minutes, the listeners moved on to hear a new story and the human books welcomed new listeners and told their stories afresh.
In addition to Courtney’s history, other stories included:
A student who in high school came out as a lesbian and now identifies as non-binary
A student who struggles against pressures to conform to social expectations placed on Asian women
A student who persevered through hardships and adversity growing up in Detroit
A member of the community who served in an artillery unit in the Vietnam War and still struggles to process his experiences, including an unfriendly welcome when he returned to the United States
“Our Human Library event brought people together to talk about some difficult subjects,” said Eric Palmer, Northwood’s head librarian and the event organizer. “I thought it was very successful.”
Palmer estimated that 50 people attended the event, including about 20 Northwood students. Plans are already in the works to do it again in Spring 2020.
“I think this event demonstrates that Northwood is much more diverse and accepting than the image some people may have,” said Rochelle Zimmerman, Northwood’s reference librarian who led committee meetings and other planning activities. “Northwood accepts you no matter who you are. Northwood believes you can be whatever you want to be, no matter where you come from.”
That acceptance demonstrated itself as students listened to the stories unfold, sometimes offering words of support or understanding. Elvirita Garcia (’22), an accounting and marketing development major, was moved by the story told by Janelle, a 32-year-old woman from Coleman who battled addictions to food, then alcohol, then drugs, until her arrest in 2017 forced her to deal with her core issues.
“It wasn’t easy to hear, but I was glad that she told me her story,” Garcia said. “It made me see things differently. She said she was happy she got arrested. It must be pretty bad to want to be arrested.”
Don shared a range of experiences from his time serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He watched a sergeant die of a chest wound after a frantic young medic failed to properly bandage it. More than once, Don teared up while telling his story.
“Some of this stuff, I’ve never talked about before,” he said.
Courtney, the Northwood student who began harming herself when she was 7, appeared to have things under control as she graduated high school.
In November of her freshman year, Courtney attempted suicide.
“After that, I met a psychiatrist and got on medication. Now I’m in my third year at Northwood, and I have a great support system,” she said. “Northwood allowed me to stay in school the whole time. They saved my life.”
Stories such as Courtney’s are not always easy to hear, or to tell, but there is little doubt that sharing them strengthens the campus community. And new stories that will be told at future Human Library events will expand on that benefit.