Serving as the first event for the Dean of Students’ Mattering & Belonging campaign, students, faculty and staff shared their stories through Dear World on Thursday, September 12.

UT community members gathered in the Student Union art gallery to have their photo taken with various words and phrases written on their upper body. These written phrases shared a story or impactful moment in the participant’s life, with the line to participate steadily growing throughout the day.

Priding itself on being “home sweet home,” Dean of Students Shea Kidd Houze decided to start the Mattering & Belonging campaign, which is also known as “Vol is a Verb,” to cultivate inclusivity in the campus environment on Rocky Top and to instill mattering and belonging as central to the campus experience.

“The campaign is designed as a collective call to action so that all of us that are a part of the [campus] can ensure that Rocky Top is a place where all students matter and belong,” Kidd Houze told the Daily Beacon before the event.

Vol is a Verb originated in faculty talks regarding student success and campus climate and faculty members decided that creating an inclusive campus would be a large, collective effort, requiring everyone’s help.

“As we thought about the various ways we could engage our community, we continued to come back to this notion that the Volunteer Experience is active and tactile. So in order to make our campus one where everyone belongs, it takes all of us,” Kidd Houze said.

A large part of “Vol is a Verb” includes encouraging students to share their personal stories, allowing them to connect their experience with the wider UT community and spreading a message of positivity as students bond over experiences.

“The big thing is to cultivate a campus climate where every student’s story is valued and has significance,” Kidd Houze said. “When we think about a sense of belonging, we really think about the importance of an individual’s story and how that fits into the volunteer experience … When we say mattering, that means, ‘I am in a space that people know has a voice, and my voice matters.’”

Dear World, which began in New Orleans in 2009, was the campaign’s answer to start storytelling on campus.

Senior in the interdisciplinary program and Dear World participant Zack Brady said the Vol is a Verb campaign is something everyone on campus should pay attention to.

“This campaign shows that everyone who is a Volunteer is important and matters and is vital to building a supportive and successful community across campus,” Brady said. “The awareness being raised due to the campaign is sure to have a positive impact in the future.”

Photos taken on Thursday will be presented at another event for the Vol is a Verb campaign. Shared in a slideshow, student stories will be presented on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Student Union auditorium.

Coordinator for Student Programming in the Center for Student Engagement Brittney Wright said Dear World helped students share their own unique stories in an impactful way.

“It is important to connect with each other in meaningful experiences, especially in this day and age,” Wright said. “It is more important than ever before for people to be open to sharing and hearing others’ experiences.”

Junior studying theater and 2019 orientation and group leader Shahd Abbas said the event helped her think about what she was doing to cope with stress, including taking breaks to do what she enjoys.

“I really enjoyed the process. I met a 2018 orientation leader, and it was a cool bonding moment. We got to talk about how our experiences were different,” Abbas said. “I recommend participating with Dear World because it gives students a platform to showcase a story about them.”

Staff Writer Ben Winiger and Contributor Abby Madan contributed to this article.

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