Calling Rhonda Gillian-Smith a non-traditional student is something of an understatement. By the time she came to Xavier to study for her master’s degree in human resource development in 2002, she was 20 years into a career as a union pipefitter. During her undergraduate days, she would arrive on campus at the College of Mount Saint Joseph in a hardhat and pickup truck, then change into school clothes.
Sure, Gillian-Smith knew it was unusual. But she also knew it would one day make for a good story. And that she would be a good one to tell it.
Somewhere during her pipefitting days, she came to realize that she had a gift for storytelling and the value of oral traditions in helping others make sense of the world. Wanting to help others and seeking a creative outlet, Gillian-Smith began telling stories to the children in her neighborhood. Soon, that expanded to local schools and then to performing a one-woman show—“Freedom Acts: Voices of Freedom Sisters,” which focuses on seven female freedom fighters of the 1960s—at museums, festivals and other venues.
That later led to an active role in shaping “Freedom’s Sisters,” a traveling exhibition that is a joint project between the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Smithsonian Institution. The project examines the lives and contributions of 20 African-American women in the Civil Rights Movement.
But Gillian-Smith also recognized the need to learn philosophical and theoretical basics for storytelling, so she enrolled in night classes. After graduation, she still had questions, so she headed first to Xavier, then to Miami University, where she worked as an adjunct in the department of educational leadership and completed her doctorate this summer.
But immersion in academia has not kept Gillian-Smith from doing the thing she loves most—telling stories. And though technology has changed the way messages are delivered, Gillian-Smith says oral transmission from one generation to another is as important as ever—maybe more.
“I’m presenting stories, and listening and teaching others to reduplicate the nuggets of information,” she says. “This was the way knowledge was shared for centuries but we’ve let that go. Telling stories returns the human side to it.”