Storytelling Beyond Boundaries: Inside U of T Scarborough Library’s Storytelling Fellowship

Professor Brenda Beck holding up a white pearled umbrella in front of a step and repeat with UTSC logo

Dr. Brenda Beck believes in the pivotal role stories play in shaping our world. As an anthropologist, she recognizes how storytelling, a timeless method for preserving knowledge and conveying vital information, has been indispensable to the evolution of everything from cultural heritage to the current climate change mitigation efforts.
Inspired by this profound influence of stories, Dr. Beck created an endowment fund through a generous pledge of $375,000 to support the creation of the Sophia Hilton Storytelling Fellowship at the U of T Scarborough Library. Ushering in its third cohort in 2023, the fellowship awards students $4,000 and an eight-month-long opportunity to explore and engage with the art of storytelling, crafting their own multimedia narratives under Dr. Beck’s mentorship.

This fellowship will allow me to actively refine my storytelling and communication skills so that I can better empathize with people and authentically represent their stories in my journalistic career, building  meaningful connections that transcend geographical and cultural boundaries. I felt like this fellowship was calling my name.
- Christy Lorentz, Recipient of 2021-22 Sophia Hilton Storytelling Fellowship

Fellows tap into this tale’s cultural and social richness, finding inspiration to retell the narrative for virtual and in-person audiences.  They delve into themes like mythology, social justice, and more. Past cohorts have experimented with choreographed dances and live  performances, as well as a  
podcast series. 

“Storytelling is a crucial skill across professions. As an anthropologist, I want to introduce students to unfamiliar stories, urging them to harness their inner storytellers to relate to and reinterpret them for today’s audiences. So, I’m encouraging that kind of experimenting with bridging between the story as it was traditionally told, and the story as you can use it today. I want them to realize that even seemingly foreign tales have elements relevant to our shared human experience and concerns.”


three singers in front of a mic in very colourful traditional saris, with a person playing the tabla in the right corner
Photo from the Villuppaattu performance of the Legend of Ponnivala

Central to the fellowship is The Legend of Ponnivala, an epic from Tamil Nadu in Southern India. The English translation of the title is The Land of the Golden River, which specifically refers to India’s Kaveri waterway. Dr. Beck has presented this captivating tale, which spans three generations of divinely blessed farmers, to a global audience through illustrative graphic novels and animations. It’s a story rich in characters, situations, and deep-seated social contexts. 

Importantly, the fellowship is inclusive. It’s open to students from all study areas and isn’t solely for those who speak Tamil. It embodies the library’s commitment to inclusiveness, giving students from diverse backgrounds a platform to narrate their unique stories. These narratives are then preserved in the U of T Scarborough Library’s Digital Tamil Collections.

“Through this fellowship, students not only learn about storytelling but also ensure their stories are preserved in the library for all to access,” says Kirsta Stapelfeldt, Head of Digital Scholarship Unit at the U of T Scarborough Library. She elaborates, “This initiative captures the essence of our current campus community and offers future generations insights into our present-day experiences through the voices of students.”