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The Blue & Gray Press | October 20, 2018

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Families connect through student’s website

Families connect through student’s website

By JULIE DYMON

War invaded Andrea Swope’s life while she was shopping at Ikea in December 2009. Swope answered a call from her husband, Lt. Col. Jon Swope, who had unexpected news.

He explained he received orders to Afghanistan and would be leaving in less than two months for a deployment that would last more than a year.

During that conversation, Andrea’s eyes locked onto the Ikea sign closest to her, which read, “Aisle 2 Bin 36.” Swope, an instructional aide at a local elementary school and mother of two, relayed this experience to senior Megan Eichenberg in an interview for a class project Eichenberg was working on in October 2010.

The project was for Eichenberg’s digital storytelling class. The class, designed by instructional technology specialist Jim Groom, challenged students to expand their storytelling techniques from typical black and white type into an interactive narrative presented through digital technology.

For the main project, Groom required students to choose a topic they were passionate about, create a blog to present the narrative in an engaging way and to regularly share updates on the progress of the blog with the class.

Eichenberg created an interactive website that captured the Swope family’s experiences of war from two battlefronts: Jon’s perspective from combat in Afghanistan and Andrea’s view from home in Virginia.

The website, Aisle 2 Bin 36, depicts the Swope’s experiences in a seven-part series where visitors to the site can choose to engage in a written narrative, an audio of Andrea telling her own story with accompanying visual slide show or an interactive map detailing smaller portions of their experiences linking Andrea’s home life to Jon’s travels.

Though Aisle 2 Bin 36 began as a class requirement, Eichenberg never saw the project as a mere assignment.

“I wanted to take advantage of what I was learning in the course […] to reach the site’s audience in as many ways as possible so they would understand the weight of the Swope’s story,” Eichenberg said. “[They are] one of thousands of families across the world experiencing deployments.”

Groom felt that Eichenberg went well beyond the requirements of the class and showcased the family’s story in a professional and culturally relevant way.

“[Aisle 2 Bin 36 is] unbelievably all-encompassing in terms of the media and in terms of the narrative,” Groom said. “I am surprised that the Washington Post or the New York Times doesn’t bring it up as a feature because I haven’t seen anyone do a work like that about someone who is home and dealing with what it means for a husband to be away at war.”

The media reports on traumatic events relating to members of the military and their families; regular, daily struggles go ignored, according to Swope.

“95 percent of the deployments are just normal people trying to get through their normal life,” she said. “I think that military spouses that have a deployed loved one are completely invisible because we are getting up and dealing with life, not whining and complaining […] just putting one foot in front of the other.”

Swope described how military family members are an “invisible population” because in the absence of tragedy, people do not take time to understand the loss they live with everyday.

“That is what is so special about Megan […] she stopped and wanted to know what it was like and didn’t want me to feel invisible,” said Swope.

Before taking digital storytelling, Eichenberg interned with the USO-Metro. This experience made her more aware of sacrifices members of the military and their families make on a smaller, more intimate scale.

“I wanted to approach my digital storytelling class project showcasing how the wars are felt on a day-to-day basis here in the United States,” she said. “I developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of what thousands of families are experiencing throughout the world.”

Although the class is over for Eichenberg, she continues to maintain Aisle 2 Bin 36 as a way to share stories like the Swope’s and reach a broader audience, who may be unaware of the difficulties having a family member in the military can entail if they are not currently going through it themselves.

“[I want to expand the site to] share military related stories from other angles,” she said.

Both Swope and Groom look forward to Aisle 2 Bin 36’s continued growth as a means to connect people and share their stories with the public through an exciting medium that’s constantly changing.

“I really like the way that that narrative expressed how it is not necessarily bookended by tragedy and horror but bookended by a psychological loss that is very hard to express,” Groom said. “What Megan really reflects for me is a new journalist of a new era and a new age […] I would hold Megan up as an example not of UMW, but across the board of what great media journalism can be.

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