We Are Nebraska interns promote inclusivity

Jazmine Huertas (third from left) answers a question during a Q&A following a performance. Photo by Justin Mohling.
Jazmine Huertas (third from left) answers a question during a Q&A following a performance. Photo by Justin Mohling.

We Are Nebraska interns promote inclusivity

calendar icon26 Feb 2020    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Jean-David Bizimana shares his story during the performance. Photo by Justin Mohling.
Jean-David Bizimana shares his story during the performance. Photo by Justin Mohling.

Lincoln, Neb.--A new internship program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln titled “We Are Nebraska” uses applied improv and applied theatre techniques to explore the personal stories with social impact of its 14 interns from across the campus and present them in a theatre experience to inspire, educate and entertain both the university community and local community.

“I think people connect to our show because it’s entertaining and engaging,” said Julie Uribe, the director and facilitator for the We Are Nebraska internship program. “People are hearing authentic, personal stories without feeling lectured to, and they can feel that our goal is not to lure them to change their beliefs. We have a variety of points of view. I know applied improv works because these 14 people, who could not be more different, love and respect each other. Their bond is something I had hoped for, but I couldn’t anticipate this level of connection. I think they’ll benefit from the training throughout their careers and personal lives.”

The theatrical experiences feature challenging topics like addiction, transphobia, depression and even suicide. The intention of the program is for students and broader audiences to gain awareness and empathy through emotional connection.

“It’s interesting. This approach has been called ‘revolutionary.’ And it’s really back to humans telling stories to other humans, which we’ve been doing since time began,” Uribe said. “Perhaps it is revolutionary with all of us on our smart phones.”

Uribe is an Emmy Award-winning producer with more than 25 years of experience in the television industry and an alumni member of The Groundlings Sunday Company improv, the famous improv theatre in Los Angeles. Coming from the theatre, improv and business worlds, she is uniquely qualified to develop and lead the program.

Her work on the Carson Film Series film “The Healing of Harman,” which was the story of a Kurdish interpreter living in Lincoln who meets a mysterious man from his past who asks for help with life and death consequences, started her on a path to focus on diversity and inclusivity at UNL.

“It’s not enough to be diverse. We have that in Lincoln as the 12th largest resettlement community,” Uribe said. “The piece that I feel is missing is inclusivity. How do we merge? Where do we find common ground?”

Meanwhile, in her teaching, she began teaching the larger Introduction to Theatre classes with 245 students from across campus.

“I realized that for many of my students, especially freshmen, this was their first time interacting with people not like themselves,” Uribe said. “The major challenge I see is that we are siloed on campus. We surround ourselves with people like ourselves. While that’s not wrong, it’s not a path to empathy and a richer life.”

She is also the faculty advisor for Lazzi, the student improv troupe that uses the principles of improv for comedy.

“I thought the same principals of improv, which build relationships, create collaboration and improve listening skills to support each other, can also be used to heal and to provide a path for empathy,” she said.

Her 14 interns this year are diverse in every way.

“I have everybody from deep, Christian faith to agnostic. They are diverse in race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status and majors. I have people from small towns and large, international cities,” Uribe said. “In addition to the raw and bold stories, we include music, song, dance and video expressions, to provide different art forms for emotional connections. It’s all about storytelling.”

She initially received support from Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts Dean Chuck O’Connor and Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Laurie Bellows. Other sponsors include Firespring, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the College of Business, the College of Engineering, and the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

“Dean O’Connor and I were aligned,” Uribe said. “He had a vision that improv could be used to educate and inspire empathy in a theatre setting.”

Jazmine Huertas, who graduated in December with a theatre performance degree, knew immediately she wanted to apply for the internship.

“It’s an internship that fits into theatre,” Huertas said. “You don’t find those very often. Forever I’ve had this deep knowing that I could possibly be a leader, and something that would take that a step forward was something I was absolutely ready to do.”

In the performance, Huertas shares her story of both her and her mother’s addiction and her desire to break the stigma of addiction.

“I kind of knew from the beginning what I wanted to share, just because what I’m sharing is such a factor in my past. It’s really shaped me,” she said. “I just didn’t know how to share it. That’s how Julie stepped in and helped. We had so many writing exercises scattered around the improv to make us more comfortable telling little parts of ourselves to the group until we got to the end. It was really amazing to see the one-on-one work come to life.”

Jean-David Bizimana, a junior integrated science major in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, has been able to connect with other students through the internship.

“I only knew one person in there, and I had another acquaintance in there, but I was able to fully connect with all the other students actually faster and stronger than I have ever connected with anybody here on campus,” he said. “So when I look at the bond that we were able to connect with among ourselves and how we truly support one another, it’s fantastic. It’s not something that you would find anywhere else.”

Bizimana, who is from Rwanda, shares his story during the performances of learning that “being a man” doesn’t mean you are weak if you seek help. Bizimana fought depression as he became isolated, determined not to let anyone know how bad he felt.

“I really appreciate the opportunity to be on stage and talk about myself and gain more self-awareness in terms of talking about some things that happened to me in my life and also gain the acceptance,” he said. “When I got here, I got depressed, but it was not something I would ever tell anyone. But being able to go into the group and challenge myself to open up and cry and have that moment of ‘Hey, you got this,’ it really helped me to find myself and find the true definition of becoming a man.”

Kennedy Nguyen, a junior marketing major in the College of Business, was a little more reluctant about his initial participation in the internship. He skimmed through a notice about We Are Nebraska and was interested in an internship about leadership, but what he didn’t notice was the use of applied improv.

“I didn’t see the applied improv part until a few meetings into it,” he said. “And at that point, I didn’t even know what applied improv is. And I was like, wait a minute. I’m not a fan of performing and acting and doing things on stage, but now I’m signed up for it. It was crazy.”

He decided to stay and take the risk.

“The beautiful thing about this is it’s a new program, so Julie let us bond by sharing through things that seemed fundamental, like writing a poem about yourself or talking about the five things you hate the most,” Nguyen said. “From that, we could understand each other more, deep down. We are now like a family. We have someone to lean on.”

Joseph Carter is a sophomore political science and history major in the College of Arts & Sciences. He learned about the We Are Nebraska internship from Uribe after taking her Theatre 112 class last year. He describes his experience with the internship as “amazing.”

“I’ve made some of the best friendships that I don’t think I would have ever get to have if I didn’t have this internship,” he said. “We all bonded in our own way, and it’s allowed me to share more sides of my story than I’ve shared with most people. Just knowing that they have my back and they’re able to support me in anything that I do and just knowing that we have those lifelong friendships now is amazing.”

During the performance, Carter shares his journey toward becoming pro-choice and his work with the student organization UNL Students for Planned Parenthood.

“It was a process. It allowed me to think about how I became pro-choice,” he said. “I think that was the hardest thing for me to do. I was baffled, like, how do I approach this? But I think Julie always knew that I had this activist’s kind of mentality. I think it just clicked so well because I am very much involved in the political realm of the world, so it’s just allowed me to be more authentic in myself and realizing how I came to the decisions that I’ve come to.”

Carter said he has learned tolerance and patience through the internship.

“I think I’ve learned a lot more patience and getting to know people before I quickly judge. And if you say one thing instantly wrong, I pounce,” he said. “Just allowing people to talk and allowing them to get to the point of where they’re at, then I talk. That’s something that I’ll be so grateful that this internship has taught me. Not everyone is going to be like minded, and they’re not going to have the same beliefs as mine. There’s so much more to a person than what their beliefs are.”

During the performance, Nguyen tells his story of embracing his identity as being transgendered.

“During the meetings we did a lot of activities, and some of them were storytelling,” he said. “Each of us has a different story. It’s just that we don’t know how to tell it. In the group it’s easy for me to open up because it’s a safe space and an accepting space. Julie helped us elaborate on what we were passionate about. So for me, I wanted to talk about trans discrimination and LGBTQ, in general. We just talk about what we love.”

Huertas said she has learned a lot from the internship.

“I’ve learned that anybody can get along, no matter the background, no matter the viewpoint, no matter the creed, the color, the gender,” she said. “I’ve learned that connection is one of the most important things in this life because without connection, there’s no empathy. Empathy is big. You have to have empathy for your fellow humans because everybody’s walking around with a story that you don’t know.”

For Nguyen, the internship has been a healing process.

“Personally, I went through a small depression before I got to college, and then buried it down with all the business of college—school, work, involvement,” he said. “Now, through this internship, I got a chance to open up and share with people. From that, I learned how to care again and to be emotional again. We see the beauty of that vulnerability. That’s a key element in leadership.”

Bizimana hopes the stories they tell make an impact and inspire people.

“We want our stories to change other people’s lives,” he said. “It’s okay to remember to ask for help, because most of us are not willing to take that step. I want my story to help anyone because depression is not selective of race, color or age. We want to inspire people generally. But also give opportunities to all other students to come and listen. There are a whole lot of things you can learn from just listening to somebody.”

Carter hopes people are inspired to pursue their passions after seeing his story in the performance.

“In my performance, I talk about being pro-choice and advocating for reproductive justice, but I really want people to take my story and apply it to what they believe in and take their passion and pursue it. I also want to get rid of the stigma around politics being all bad. I am hopeful in the government. Finding your story and pursuing what your passions are is what I hope people take away from this.”

Nguyen said, “I want the audience to be more open to the topics that we share. Look at these topics as a conversation topic, and not an argument. Let’s sit down and talk and be respectful. You don’t know their story or their background or what they’ve been through.”

Huertas said the internships are important for the campus.

“Campus does a great job trying to meet everybody’s needs. I see that,” she said. “But sometimes, people don’t have time to go to a group every Tuesday or participate in a club. So I think even a slice of diversity on one night might be able to open a lot of students’ eyes to what’s around them and what’s going on with their peers. It’s really easy to stay in your own bubble on campus and not recognize that this person might be going through the same thing that I am, and that could be a friend. That could be a connection. I hope students and faculty alike understand we’re just trying to open you up to a connection.”

Huertas recommends the internship to students who might be considering it next year.

“If you’re thinking about it, at least try to do it,” she said. “For me, it was super therapeutic to get on stage and share this with everybody—get it off my chest. It helped me release a lot of emotion I didn’t know I was holding in, and it helped me create connections I never thought I’d have.”

Nguyen said everyone has a story.

“I told a lot of my friends that you should apply for this,” he said. “And the first reaction is ‘I don’t have a story to tell.’ What I would say is everyone has a story—at least one. And most of us have more than 10. Your story doesn’t have to be perfect, and every story is unique. Sharing your story with the local community, you’re stepping away from your comfort zone and sharing with people who might not have the same point of view as you. But some people might feel very relatable to you. You don’t know how impactful you can be.”

Carter said it’s been a great experience.

“I’m forever grateful for Julie recognizing me and my potential to share my story,” he said. “I think that’s something I’ll be forever grateful for.”

Uribe looks forward to recruiting for next year’s interns.

“The three things I’m looking for are a passion for leadership, a desire to tell their personal story that they feel may help others, and the openness to spend time and learn from others different from themselves,” she said. “I feel very optimistic and hopeful when I’m around this age group. There are so many phenomenal students out there.”

For more information on the We Are Nebraska internship program, visit their website at https://go.unl.edu/wearenebraska.