The oral history project is a major part of the social studies curriculum for each entering class of Uni students. In social studies, subbies first learn about the topic of their class’s project and how to do oral history interviews. Working in teams, they then prepare for, conduct and record a 90-minute interview with someone who has a personal connection to or expertise on their given topic. After transcribing their team interviews, students write short pieces designed to put the experiences of their interviewee(s) into a broader context. Building on the work done by the entire subfreshman class, a smaller team of students in grades 9 – 12 (known as “WILL interns”) then select the best parts from the entire set of interviews and piece them together to create a series of short radio spots as well as an hour-long radio documentary that will be aired on WILL.
The oral history project was launched in 1993 by former Uni social studies teacher Barbara Wysocki, who worked with Dan Simeone, the WILL station manager. Together, they oversaw seven years’ worth of oral history projects on topics ranging from the experiences of African American women in the Champaign-Urbana area to the stories of World War II prisoners of war. In 2000, WILL radio journalist Dave Dickey took Simeone’s place as production supervisor, and he continued in this role until his retirement from the station in June 2015.
After Wysocki's retirement in 2002, the oral history project continued thanks to social studies teacher Jenny Yi Kim. Under her leadership, Uni students worked on four projects, including "The 20th Century Exodus: The Triumphant Life and Journey of the Jewish in Our Community," which won the 2006 Communicator Award of Distinction. In 2006, when Kim left Uni, the oral history project again changed hands and became the responsibility of subreshman social studies teacher and department head, Janet Morford. Under her direction, successive cohorts of WILL interns produced a new radio documentary and related created content annually from 2007 to 2017. After Morford left Uni at the end of the 2016-17 year, Melissa Schoeplein joined the faculty and serves as the current WILL intern sponsor, subfreshman social studies teacher, and department head.
Opportunities to be involved as part of an intern team have also greatly expanded. Whereas originally, a small handful of student producers worked primarily with the WILL journalist for a few months, under the current model twenty-some interns from grades 9 through 12 serve for a year at a time in either the pre-production or the production phase of each oral history project. The pre-production team of interns work closely with Schoeplein to choose a topic for the new project and to develop a project overview. They fan out into the community to search for potential interviewees for the new project. They conduct informal interviews and gather background information about the chosen community members. This information is then shared with the subfreshmen, so that they may ask relevant questions during their more extensive recorded interviews.
Interns who serve on the production team are responsible for selecting material from each set of recorded interviews and deciding how to use this material in the documentary and other created content. Production interns not only edit the audio segments, but also write narration, select musical bridges and ambient sound, and then produce the final documentary and short radio spots from all of these pieces.
Students must apply to become an intern at the end of the subfreshman year. If they are selected and do well in that role, they may reapply to continue in subsequent years. Many interns remain with the program for multiple years, building greater skills and gradually acquiring more responsibility for training and leading others, determining the focus of new projects, and producing radio shorts and documentaries. Being a part of the WILL interns is something that many Uni students have enjoyed over the years. The program helps students develop skills in doing research, communicating with diverse audiences, leading teams, managing complex projects and telling stories about the past that feature the voices and experiences of real people from our community.