UNTOLD Project-Campus Diaries: Behind Every Smile

MTSU Center for Health and Human Services Partners with the Global UNTOLD Movement to Create “Campus Diaries:  Behind Every Smile” – Maintaining Social Distance while Being Heard

The world is experiencing unprecedented challenges with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Middle Tennessee has not only been impacted by the pandemic, but the recent 2020 tornadoes as well. March 2021 marks the one-year mark of both the tornadoes and the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The effects of both still remain even more than a year later, with people still dying from COVID-19 every day and many who lost homes or businesses with the tornadoes still not re-built or back to business-as-usual.  Our students are impacted by these world and local events as they continue to face the underlying stress of student life.  It is well-documented that mental health issues in the college student population nationwide are a growing concern and with the current threat of COVID-19, these issues are magnified.  MTSU Center for Health and Human Services (CHHS)  is partnering with UNTOLD Originals, a global storytelling platform as the national pilot site for Campus Diaries: Behind Every Smile to help fill a need to “share one’s story” and to be heard. 

The UNTOLD project is a global storytelling movement mining the unknown tales of humanity. Consisting of dynamic photojournalism, a film series for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s streaming platform Crackle Plus, a blog and podcast, UNTOLD exposes the remarkable stories of ordinary people – giving voice to life’s diverse experiences, challenges and vulnerabilities in a mission that unites us all.  Campus Diaries:  Behind Every Smile will be a special episode of UNTOLD’s film series is now in pre-production.

Beginning in April 2020, MTSU students were asked to submit “diary entries” anonymously through the Campus Diaries web portal which was  - and still is - available via the UNTOLD Project website for students around the world to read and share. The goal is for students to feel less isolated as they participate in the catharsis of writing. The platform allows a safe space for students to unload life’s burdens without burdening  others.   These "Diary" entries will resonate with all students who have ever faced a challenge, crisis, or difficult patch on life’s journey through the college years. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the earlier tornados here in Tennessee, the diary entries have been both dynamic and inspiring as well.   The fall 2020 semester yielded 50 compelling diary entries, and as of spring 2021 over 100 entries have been collected and continue to be received.

In the fall of 2020, UNTOLD Originals had planned to begin filming its series consisting of students who decided they wanted to go on camera to be featured in not only the film series, but to be photographed by a world reknowned photojournalist.  After an exciting week of filming a photography, events would culminate in a dynamic photography exhibit on the MTSU campus.  UNTOLD also had planned to create a podcast for students to share their stories.  MTSU student involvement was to be as a model to be expanded to colleges and universities nationwide. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused this portion of the project to be postponed, but is hoped that plans will resume as public health and safety guidelines change in the future as the pandemic situation improves.

MTSU’s CHHS has supervised several Health and Human Performance community and public health interns over the 2020 and 2021 semesters who have played important roles in moving the project forward, including, Monica Hundley, the young lady who provided student input and perspective and brought this idea to life, pitching the concept of  adapting  UNTOLD into a campus-based initiative and bringing the project to the MTSU campus.

The Center currently implements a federal mental health focused grant on campus which has outperformed its first and second year goals and is currently in year three with the grant ending September 30, 2021.  The Center recently applied for funds which would continue this program through 2025.  CHHS cares about our students and our campus community.   In addition to the mental health grant we implement with our campus partners, the Campus Diaries project is just another way we can support the mental health and well-being of our students particularly during this challenging time of “social distancing.”  While not all diary entries may focus on mental health issues, my guess with current world events and the “regular” challenges that come with being a student, a lot of the entries will indeed focus on mental health challenges. We want to hear from students about any of their life challenges whether it be physical health, finances, mental health, relationships, or anything else that is on their mind.

CHHS is reaching out to faculty via email, asking them to share this opportunity with students and to students through social media to make them aware of this opportunity.    Dr. David Butler, Vice Provost for Research & Dean, College of Graduate Studies says “This is a tremendous opportunity for us to support our students at MTSU and to give them an outlet to express themselves during an unprecedented challenging time in our nation’s history.”

Karen Shayne, UNTOLD Founder and Executive Producer, says “I am thrilled to choose Middle Tennessee State University and the Center for Health and Human Service to launch Campus Diaries as a pilot initiative that academic institutions across the country – and the world – can replicate.   With MTSU having students residing in all 95 Tennessee counties, the work we do will reflect a statewide effort to launch this amazing student-focused project.  We have an opportunity to showcase the wonderful students and work of MTSU to the world. Let’s be a part of the solution to reducing stigma and showing that’s it’s o.k. to talk about tough topics.”


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