In Our Words: Creating a Space for Student Voices in Times of Social Change

Angela Hughes and Donnell King
Innovation Showcase

Communication faculty often have a unique opportunity to hear students’ own stories. These stories permeate the work of learning public speaking. Faculty members at Pellissippi State Community College recently launched In Our Words, a public forum in which students share their stories with audiences beyond the public speaking classroom. Public speaking generally benefits both speaker and audience, and In Our Words certainly does that. Benefits also extend to the Communication Studies department and other areas of the college.


Pellissippi State has, for years, had a robust faculty lecture series for faculty members to share information and ideas about topics of interest. The impact on both speakers and audiences is evidenced by high attendance, the number of repeat lecturers, and the longevity of the program. Based on the positive response to the faculty series, two Communications Studies faculty members and two Phi Theta Kappa advisors partnered to initiate the student series.

The title of the series—In Our Words—reflects the concept of a forum for students to express their ideas and tell their stories. Planning involved collaborating with other faculty and organizational elements, obtaining feedback from administrators and staff, and considering ways to ensure students would be the focus of the series. After careful consideration, the organizers decided to assign a theme to each event and invite students to speak on topics related to the event theme. Given all that students know and do, limitless themes can support this kind of endeavor.

Strongly supportive administrators pointed out the importance and potential of hosting these events on each of Pellissippi State’s five campuses, so In Our Words events rotate among the sites. The college recognizes each campus as an integral part of the college mission but also supports each campus as it develops its own personality and culture.

Since February 2016, three iterations of the series have been staged. Panels have included three or four speakers each, with themes that are student focused and respectful of each campus’s culture.

The first iteration, Fighting Real Dragons, focused on persistence in the face of challenge, particularly succeeding in education. After hearing several students tell personal stories of overcoming challenges, the organizers chose participation, engagement, and volunteering as the theme for the second iteration—Becoming the Change We’d Like to See. The third iteration resulted from a professor’s class assignment titled, My Neighborhood. Students shared stories and experiences related to their past or current neighborhoods.

In Our Words panels were advertised via flyers, email, and social media. Some public speaking and English faculty incentivized attendance by offering extra credit for attendance or requiring the use of the speeches in follow-up papers. Additional audience members included students interested in the topics or familiar with the speakers, faculty and staff, family and friends of the speakers, and community stakeholders.

At the beginning of each panel, a faculty member introduced the series and the theme, followed by a faculty member or Phi Theta Kappa officer introducing each student speaker. In order to increase access, events were streamed through Periscope, Facebook Live, and the college’s Event Services department.


As with any new endeavor, faculty organizers faced several challenges in starting the In Our Words series at Pellissippi State.

  • Though many students have fascinating and inspiring stories, some are reluctant to speak. The organizers are faculty members who often hear students’ experiences so they are able to identify students who may be willing to publicly discuss theme-related topics.
  • Scheduling a time that is convenient for speakers and most potential audience members presented an unanticipated challenge. It can be difficult to plan events that fit within a standard class schedule and accommodate student speakers. Although faculty members generally allow student speakers to miss class for the event, those students may miss an entire class session. Organizers also have to consider travel time between campuses and, therefore, focus the search for speakers on the campus at which an event will occur. In addition, organizers try to schedule when at least one class taught by an organizer or supporter can attend. This helps to increase attendance, as does connecting the theme to work taking place in course settings. For example, the community engagement theme resonated with several professors who use service learning in their courses, including an English professor whose students attended and used what they learned in essays.
  • Because each campus has a unique culture that supports learning in its own way, organizers have attempted to provide the opportunity for students to share their stories with students on each of Pellissippi State’s five campuses. While a series that allows students to share their stories across campus communities promotes differences among students and encourages engagement with the college, community, and one another, it also presents ongoing logistical challenges.
  • The use of technology to expand viewing has been effective. By experimenting with different platforms, the organizers have found that Facebook Live currently provides the most effective and user friendly platform, as well as the capability to reach a large audience. An unchanging link to materials enables student speakers to share their presentations with friends and family, and the presentations can be used in the future.


The student speakers, audience members, and college benefit in many ways by the In Our Words series.

Student Speaker Benefits

  • Sharing their stories can validate students’ experiences and help them find points of connection with fellow students.
  • The act of public speaking naturally leads to an examination of an experience’s meaning. This exploration helps students process their own experience and reinforce their own pursuit of goals. For instance, a student who discussed growing up in foster care after being evicted from his home and neighborhood declared with pride his determination to overcome statistical expectations for those raised in the foster care system.
  • Growing in confidence and experience provides speakers with both personal and professional development, in addition to serving as a résumé builder.
  • Finally, many student speakers welcome the opportunity to spread a message they value. For example, a student who had worked with Pellissippi State’s Foundation to start a scholarship for homeless students not only discussed her experience but gave audience members information about how they could participate. The benefit, therefore, went beyond a mere grade to the more intrinsic motivation and satisfaction of pursuing a worthwhile goal.

Audience Member Benefits

  • Some audience members find points of similarity, which serve as inspiration and encouragement.
  • Others encounter different ideas and experiences than their own. One adult learner who brought her children to the My Neighborhood panel was moved by the stories and used them to discuss differences with her children.
  • Students in the audience see the impact of live audiences and live speakers uncompromised by video editing or social media.
  • Students in the audience also experience how raw, imperfect, but authentic public expression can impact an audience and achieve a significant purpose, and that with effort and focus anyone can develop this skill set.
  • Student audience members, as previously mentioned, use information from the presentations to meet academic expectations, such as including the material in essays.

College Benefits

  • The Communication Studies program has welcomed the opportunity to show off some of its best speakers and students. A few of the student speakers intend to major in communication studies at the university level, but most are pursuing other majors. This series helps demonstrate that excellence in speaking is not reserved for communications majors, and showcases the power of effective speaking to advance any goal.
  • The organizers work across disciplines, with Student Support Services, and with individuals at other campuses. Collegiality benefits everyone involved, and helps make the institution and each individual stronger.
  • Ultimately, the series supports the college’s mission to create “a transformative environment fostering the academic, societal, economic, and cultural enrichment of the individual and the community.”

Future Possibilities

As the series grows and becomes more established, the future presents several opportunities for development.

  • The organizers intend to continue, as a priority, rotating the event among all campuses, honoring campus cultures with different themes and speakers.
  • Encouraging the participation of Phi Theta Kappa and, in turn, participating in their work, could help both programs grow.
  • Depending on the theme and campus, alumni and community stakeholders could inspire and encourage current students via participation on panels.
  • The organizers will continue to utilize technology to reach larger audiences, with a particular focus on how social media can benefit both the initial promotion of the events and connect additional audiences to the students’ experiences.
  • Finally, the organizers seek to strengthen the student focus, providing opportunities for students to share their experiences while engaging other students in a dialogue of involvement, inclusion, and success. One possibility is to create a committee that includes students to decide on a process for speaker and theme selection.

Angela Hughes are Donnell King are both faculty in the Communication Studies department at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.