People often ask what I do or what I would like to be when I grow up. The answer is a story-teller — but in the non-traditional sense. I like to use other mediums beyond words to tell stories. My first love was in illustration so as a child, I told stories through drawings and paintings of the things I saw inside my head. One day I got my first camera, and I started telling stories through photographs — of my favourite memories, my friends, even strangers and strange places I got to travel to.
I fell in love with learning the stories of other people. Later in life, I turned to the pursuit of research and design as mediums to learn these stories. I used my studies in psychology as a vehicle to understand the motivations and the why’s and how’s of the people in these stories. With the help of Don Norman and my Asian tiger parents breathing down my neck to just choose a path in life already, I became interested in the field of user-centred design and its applications to creating environments that are inclusive and accessible for everyone. My first love in life was art, and that love soon blossomed into a more nuanced appreciation for the integration of aestheticism, functionality, and accessibility in the things we design.
In university, I focused my interest on the design of student services. As a freshman, bright eyed and un-cynical about the journey ahead, I had a lot of energy to dedicate to listening to the stories of other people. What I heard was really disheartening. University life was really stressful. A lot of people I met were really struggling to get through the day to day. Often, I struggled with them. The value of mental health became apparent when I started university.
So I asked myself — how can I help? I didn’t know what kind of resources were available outside of the professional context, and all I really had to offer were my own listening abilities and a lot of empathy. As any young college freshman would do, I turned to Googling around to see what was available on campus. Then I found out about a relatively young student initiative — a peer support service that had been started by similar students like myself, who wanted to provide a supportive space for others. I applied to join the leadership team not really expecting anything and then suddenly landed a role in promoting the service to the tens of thousands of students within my school community.
Turns out, building a functional service is really hard (go figure). The first problem we had was that we had little institutional support and nobody knew about the service. Our volunteers were exceptionally trained and incredibly under-utilized. That was also disheartening. But we focused on our community and the needs of our fellow students. We asked them what they wanted from the service, where they wanted to be supported, and when. We studied our feedback closely. We deployed a lot of surveys. We continued to improve our training programs in order to be more diverse and inclusive. We worked on creating an image that was diverse and inclusive as well. After 3 years of involvement, hundreds of students a year now use the service. The majority of our users also indicate feeling heard and understood by their peer supporter.
Getting involved with a peer support service was the best thing I did in my 4 years of college. It gave me my first real lesson in how we can use design and research to create a service that is meaningful for a community. It also taught me about how stories can heal us — when we get to share our hurt and trauma with others, it can relieve us of the full weight of our burdens. Suddenly storytelling wasn’t just a means to document my own memories. Storytelling could be used as a legitimate remedy to common suffering.