Nestled among overgrown evergreens and deciduous trees on the south side of campus sits Mueller Hall — home to Christ College, one of the nation’s oldest honors colleges. Since its doors opened in 1970, the brick walls have housed conversations of discourse and discovery.

Much like Mueller Hall, every building has a story — a rich history of time and place and the people who studied, worked and lived inside. Sparked by conversations inside Mueller, Emily Royer ’12 and Jacob Just ’12 listened for these stories during their time as Christ College students and continued this work through their collaboration on a story-telling project.

The Valpo grads currently research and document Central Stories for the Porter County Museum of History, which highlights the rich connections between historic architecture, memory, and community in one downtown Valparaiso, Ind., neighborhood.

Their work will be showcased in a summer 2013 museum exhibition about the history of the Central neighborhood with gallery displays and oral histories supporting their research.

The Central Stories project had modest beginnings from the very first conversations with professors Gretchen Buggeln and Elizabeth Lynn. In Buggeln’s American Home course, designed as a neighborhood study, Royer explored architectural history and material culture. Royer then applied her knowledge by observing how people live in their physical environment.

“We were so humbled by the welcome we received that our project was less an academic analysis and more heartfelt retelling story that had become so close to us,” she said.

Because of this, both Royer and Just postponed plans for graduate school in order to continue their education in the community.

“One of my very first classes at Valpo showed me that my time there, though I did not yet know it, would shape me not just into a skilled member of the workforce but also into a more thoughtful, caring human being and a more intentional Christian,” Royer said.

Reflective and oftentimes passionate conversations permeated throughout their time at Valpo, both inside and outside of classrooms, during meals with friends, and with professors who never hesitated to open their doors.

“In these relationships I first began to see what I was learning academically reflected in a real-world situation,” Royer said.

Inspired by Lynn’s Traditions of Giving and Serving in America course, Just learned the value of being receptive to different experiences and how relationships could truly transform his education.

“Valpo not only allowed a space for questions, it nurtured me to lean into those questions, lean hard and allow them to guide me — maybe never to an answer, even,” he said.

Royer and Just, both hailing from Fort Wayne, Ind., did not plan to stay in the Valparaiso community after graduation, and they never dreamed of working on an oral history project.

But Just contends his experiences at Valpo led him to be amenable to unexpected opportunities. “Be open and awake to what or who comes across your journey’s path,” he said.

Quickly, and quite unexpectedly, Royer realized she wanted to pursue an interdisciplinary endeavor after graduation and sought counsel from Buggeln about how to carry the American Home class project into life post-graduation. The conversation continued with Lynn and Just, and eventually they developed the plan for the Central Stories.

What evolved is an ideal fit for the students and the community, according to Buggeln.

“Emily and Jake are especially curious about people — who they are, how they become that way, and how we live together in community,” Buggeln said. “They are also interested in the arts and are excellent observes of the world and the things people create for both utility and beauty.”

Since August 2012 the two have researched, interviewed, studied, and photographed the neighborhood, as well as collected oral histories and mapped community social networks. Ultimately, they strive to help the residents better understand and engage with the meaning of their place in the community.

Their project is possible through a myriad of support from the United Way of Porter County, which placed Just and Royer at the museum via AmeriCorps, the Indiana Humanities Grant and the Porter County Museum.

The Central Stories project is intended to help Valparaiso residents better understand and engage with the meaning and value of their place, even as the city continues to change and grow. And it’s only fitting that both Royer and Just continue to find their place and path in life as they help other reclaim theirs.

“I wanted to work with buildings, and communities, and stories, and I wanted to learn how to see and explain that all of these things were witnesses to and products of Christ’s love,” Royer said.

valpo_magazineAnother component of the project includes the University’s new Institute for Leadership and Service, led by Lynn, who serves on an advisory committee for Central Stories. While the Institute is in its inaugural year, Lynn encourages campus-wide classroom discussions on what it means to be a thoughtful leader and the exploration of why people serve others. These ideas converge in Just and Royer’s project.

Just said Lynn modeled the receptivity required in order to build bridges with service; to connect with one another; to be awake, open, courageous; and to be willing to listen and ask questions.

“She invested in me, in many ways, and led me to invest in the Valparaiso and Porter County community,” Just said of Lynn. “She opened an avenue of service for my arts and question-driven mind.”

And this is just the beginning.