Immigrant Stories: New Ways of Preserving and Teaching Immigration History

June 23, 2016
By: Elizabeth Venditto with Erika Lee

How can we include the first-hand experiences of the most recent immigrants and refugees in our teaching? How can we directly engage students in the creation and analysis of new immigrant narratives? How do we preserve and teach immigration history in the digital age?
Immigrant Stories, a digital storytelling and archiving project run by the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), is an innovative model for addressing these questions. In years past, instructors might have assigned oral history projects in class to help capture family migration histories and help students develop their research skills. Today, we have learned to tell immigrant narratives that match the 21st century world of technology that our students know so well. Immigrant Stories engages students in the creation, preservation, and sharing of historical sources while they develop digital literacy skills and critical understandings of history. Since 2013, the IHRC has trained an estimated 600 high school and college students, community members, and teachers in the art and science of creating a digital story about immigration, race, and ethnicity.

Immigrant Stories teaches participants to create digital stories about their personal or family immigration experiences. Digital stories are brief (3-5 minute) videos made from a combination of images, text, music, video, and audio. They are not interviews. Instead, participants write a brief (300-500 words) story about the topic of their choice. Then they record an audio voiceover of their script and add images to create a video file. The result is a rich, multilayered narrative, such as this story by former University of Minnesota student Thiago Heilman about his experiences as a DACA recipient.

By creating their own digital stories, students develop a number of important skills. They gain hands-on experience editing audio and video files. They hone their research skills because relating an individual’s story to an unfamiliar audience often requires researching additional information about both the experience and its historical context. Students improve writing skills as they write and revise a script. They learn to communicate their research as a short story that has a clear focus and a beginning, middle, and end. Because students are engaged in the production of a historical source, they gain new insights into how such sources are created, preserved, and shared. Immigrant Stories allows students to choose their story’s subject and thus contribute additional perspectives to the course. It has become a favorite assignment of many college students. Time and time again, they comment on how much they have learned throughout the process and how meaningful it has been to reflect on and share their own experiences as part of their learning.

Students also become active participants in the preservation of immigration history. When a student creates a digital story, they are invited- but never required- to donate their story to the Immigrant Stories collection. Donated videos and their transcripts are made publicly available through the Minnesota Digital Library and the Digital Public Library of America. Immigrant Stories will also be added to the collections of the IHRC Archives for professional preservation. Though these digital stories are often very personal, students often choose to share them because they feel that stories like theirs were are not represented in the history they previously learned in school. To date, the Immigrant Stories collection contains more than 200 digital stories.

Immigrant Stories is also a valuable resource for teachers who wish to use primary sources created by immigrants in class.The videos and transcripts are available online, and the collection may be searched by keyword. The IHRC staff has curated several dozen stories on its website and organized them by theme, such as refugee resettlement and the experiences of second-generation youth. They are available here:

The IHRC also has free resources to help teachers and students participate in Immigrant Stories. Our Immigrant Stories College Toolkit contains everything an instructor needs to assign Immigrant Stories as a cumulative final project in any class. The toolkit includes lesson plans, basic instructions for editing audio and video files, writing prompts, a student resource packet, and a grading rubric. This toolkit and others may be downloaded from the IHRC website:

This summer, making an Immigrant Story will become even easier. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the IHRC is building an Immigrant Stories web application. It will contain writing prompts, instructional videos, and video editing software, so students will be able to complete their entire project within the application by using any computer or mobile device with internet access.

For more information, project updates, and to view the entire collection, visit

Elizabeth Venditto with Erika Lee

Elizabeth Venditto is the Immigrant Stories project manager and a migration and public historian. Instructors interested in teaching with Immigrant Stories may contact her directly at Erika Lee is the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center. She is the author of the award-winning books At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (co-authored with Judy Yung), and The Making of Asian America: A History (2015).

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