The Experiential Storytelling Conference: Lessons in life and learning

The Experiential Storytelling Conference: Lessons in life and learning


Rowan University’s Experiential Storytelling Conference March 29 was a day-long lesson in what is possible, in life and in learning.

Organized by Professor Susan Bowman, Public Relations & Advertising, and Assistant Professor Amanda Almon, Radio, Television & Film, both in the College of Communication & Creative Arts, the conference was a forum for students and other members of the Rowan community to share in the life experiences of leading voices from inside and outside the University.

The program, held in the Rowan University Art Gallery, featured the stories of nine people, including Rowan President Ali Houshmand, whose difficulties as a young man in Iran included a degree of poverty unknown to most Americans.

“I’m someone who literally used to struggle with my siblings for a piece of bread,” Houshmand recalled.

With the help of his family – a plane ticket and a gift of about $70 – Houshmand left Iran to study in the United Kingdom, where he earned his undergraduate and first master’s degrees.

But even there, life was not easy.

He struggled with hunger, often saving a hard-boiled egg from breakfast to get him through the day, and recalled how, out with friends one night, racist skinheads attacked them and broke his jaw.

“Those years were very challenging for me… There were many instances of tough situations, even life and death,” the president said. “In every life you’ll come to a fork in the road and you’ll need to figure out which road to choose.”

On the advice of a trusted professor, he ultimately left the U.K. for America where he earned a second master’s degree as well as his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and became a U.S. citizen.

“I’ve lived a life of extremes and I don’t regret any of it,” Houshmand said. “In my view, at the end of the day, you shape you.”


Finding a sense of self

Like many college graduates, Jean and Ric Edelman, Rowan alumni who today employ more than 1,000 people through Edelman Financial Engines, said before founding their company they had to find themselves.

Deeply in love but also deeply in debt, the couple worked a series of jobs that didn’t fully satisfy them and did not pay very well. But they wanted to purchase a home and spoke with a financial consultant who told them they wouldn’t qualify for a mortgage based on their income and advised them to lie about it.

They did not lie, and they didn’t keep the consultant.

“When that financial planner told us to commit a felony we thought, imagine how much he could make if he offered advice that could help people?” said Ric Edelman.

“I had many jobs,” Jean Edelman said. “We had a bunch of debt, so we went without, but we had a dream.”

That dream, which began in the couple’s one bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, Md., eventually grew into a company representing more than one million clients and managing more than $200 billion in assets.

The couple has donated nearly $30 million to their alma mater, which enabled the University to build a world-class planetarium in Science Hall and to finance development of the Mantua Township fossil park that bears their name.

“It is a little surprising to us,” Ric Edelman said of their great success. “But much of who we are has to do with our experiences here, at what was then Glassboro State College.”


Diverse speakers

The event’s speakers also included Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia; Jen Christiansen, senior graphics editor at Scientific American; writer, curator, educator and designer Ellen Lupton; Monica Serrano, senior graphics editor at National Geographic; broadcaster, author and financial educator Alvin Hall; and Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, founding dean of Rowan’s School of Earth & Environment.

Lacovara, a world-renowned paleontologist who delivered one of the top ten TED Talks of 2016, gave “a talk about giving talks,” from college class lessons to written speeches to a world stage.

Ultimately, he said, all forms are about telling stories.

“You are all storytellers,” said Lacovara. “You are all human, and one aspect that sets us apart from all other animals is our ability to tell stories.”

Reflecting on the program afterward, conference chair Almon noted that stories are a fundamental way of connecting ourselves to others.

“Stories of personal triumph, challenges, choices and expertise serve to remind us that we are not so different in our failures and successes,” she said.

Conference co-chair Bowman said the program was successful in large part for the juxtaposition of speakers, including their histories and career paths.

“Oftentimes, academic and professional silos exist between art, design, science and business, where there is a gap in conversation and collaborative shared experience,” Bowman said. “Having experts tell their unique story to students, faculty, staff and members of the community created a synergy of passion, inspiration and public mentoring and advisement about the path one chooses and how overcoming challenges by living your best self can create change in an individual and in the broader community.”