Feb. 09, 2012

Shaping Lives of Purpose: Student project preserves oral history of local senior citizens


Michael Roff '12 created the Heard@Geneseo project with an undergraduate research grant provided by the Fund for Geneseo. Student volunteers interviewed 13 local senior citizens to preserve their oral histories. He is making plans to continue the project in future years. /PHOTO BY KEITH WALTERS '11



Michael Roff '12 looked up to his grandfather, Richard Wissmann, in many ways. An Army veteran, he earned his high school equivalency diploma and became a successful and mostly self-taught mechanic. He also was a longtime firefighter and chaplain.

"He was motivated, incredibly driven and he wanted to make the world a better place," says Roff, an English literature major. "That was really motivational for me and made him a hero in my eyes."

Roff interviewed his grandfather in his kitchen, years ago. That tape is cherished by his family, he says, now that his grandfather is gone. Knowing the importance of having such a record, Roff created Heard@Geneseo, a senior thesis project that he's working to make a permanent official club at Geneseo.

Roff and 26 student volunteers spent dozens of hours interviewing 13 local senior citizens about their lives and life lessons last fall. They are transcribing the recordings. When finished, they will produce chapbooks for the seniors and their families as keepsakes. Roff is working on how best to archive the 500-plus pages of transcribed interviews.

"I thought about how important that interview was for my family and how great it would be to give back to the community by giving other people something that was lasting from someone they cared about," says Roff. "This was a good way to use the skills I've gained at Geneseo to do something positive.

Roff received an undergraduate research grant provided by The Fund for Geneseo through the Department of English for the project. Shaping Lives of Purpose: The Campaign for Geneseo, the college's most amibitious fundraising initiative, aims to raise $22 to $25 million to bolster the endowment as well as academic innovation, faculty support, student scholarships, global education, The Fund for Geneseo and athletics. In 2010-2011, gifts to The Fund for Geneseo provided 394 student scholarships, more than $447,000 in student aid, and 189 undergraduate research and travel grants.

Heard@Geneseo would not be possible without grant support, Roff said, which paid for the voice recorders and the cost of producing the memento books.

Roff worked with the Livingston County Office of the Aging as well as the Center for Community and his adviser, Professor of English Beth McCoy, as well as others as he learned about interviewing, archiving, release forms and other fundamentals.

Roff says students and seniors have each said they understand each other better, with new appreciation. Seniors have told him and interviewers that that they didn't feel they had a story worthy of telling, but through the interview process, they discovered they did, he says. Students and seniors have gained new perspective, and that's the best part.

"It has exceeded all my expectations," says Roff. "We really wanted a transformative experience. Part of that is opening your frame of reference. I am consistently amazed at what people get out of a little perspective."