Student View: Graduating Senior Discovers and Embraces His Love of Storytelling at MSU

From an article on the MSU College of Arts & Letters website. 

Writing never fails to open new doors for me. It takes me to new places, introduces me to wonderful people, and fills my life with countless opportunities and great joy. That’s the single most valuable thing I’ve learned at MSU.

However, I started my freshman year ignorant of this, without much of an idea about what I wanted to do. The summer before college, I had a vague idea it had something to do with business because that is a broad and general and an open-ended path, and I didn’t really know what else to commit to.

Near the middle of my freshman year, I thought Astrophysics sounded interesting. But so did Environmental Studies, Global History, Psychology, Biology, Human Geography, and Film Studies. There were probably more too, but those were the top contenders. There was too much to choose from, and it all interested me. I wanted to learn about everything and committing to one seemed impossible.

That winter, I had a bit of a personal revelation regarding writing. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading and watching movies more than nearly anything else. I was enamored with trying to understand how a book or movie could create such an intense bond between the story, its characters, and my mind and emotions. I felt elevated by their triumphs, torn down by their struggles, terrified by their fears, and exhilarated by their journeys.

A picture of a man standing in front of a group on people on a glacier. He is wearing a bright blue coat and carrying an ice axe.
Austin Curtis practicing crevasse rescue in Sasquatch Pass on the Homathko Icefield in British Columbia.

Every story I consumed left me feeling enriched and profoundly moved. I loved the emptiness that a finished story left behind and the creativity its emotional residue generated. This prompted me to write stories of my own, or to infuse an essay or journal entry with a bit more heart, trying to capture a little of the ecstasy I felt after a good story.

I never felt this could lead to anything serious — becoming a writer or storyteller was never talked about in my high school. The understanding then was, if you wanted to study English or Film in college, you would become a teacher, and that was it. I didn’t want to teach, so I quickly stamped out the idea of becoming a writer. I buried that thought for years until it was dug up and thrust in my face.

During the winter of my freshman year, I became very ill and was stuck in the hospital for several days, then in my own bed for several weeks. Bedridden and feeling very low, I had too much free time on my hands. I filled it with movies and books as best I could, but there was still time for thinking. Too much time for thinking I felt, at first, but then I began to think about storytelling until I suddenly and clearly understood it in a different light.

During my recovery, I was essentially sustaining myself on stories; they helped with the healing — not in body, but in spirit. Recognizing this was a powerful moment for me. It changed everything as I began to understand the real power in the stories I loved — their ability to inspire, the way they opened me to new people, places, and ideas, and the strength and power in the emotions they created. Stories foster connection, let us know we belong, and give us the energy to explore new things — and indefinitely more.

A picture of a man wearing a white shirt with a camera and sunglasses. Behind him are elephants.
Austin Curtis at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an orphan elephant rescue and wildlife rehabilitation center in Nairobi.

I realized that’s powerful stuff. I imagined someone feeling as down as I had felt, and then I imagined them reading or watching something I created, and I imagined it helping them get through whatever it was they needed to get through or bringing them even more joy at a high point — even if it was only a small change, that would be enough. It occurred to me then that I couldn’t lie to myself any longer. I wanted to tell stories — I felt called to do it and, from that point forward, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

The other big plus of studying storytelling was that it allowed me to explore my other interests without choosing one over the other. It was possible to learn about history, psychology, the environment, the stars, and beyond by researching and writing about them. I discovered one of the few ways I can truly understand something is by writing about it, making my choice even more appealing.

I came back to campus and dropped my Business major in favor of Digital Storytelling with a concentration in Filmmaking. A semester later, I added an English major, and for the past three years, I’ve enjoyed the best of both worlds. I think some part of me deep down knew I was headed down this path, which is one of the major reasons I chose to go to MSU, one of the few schools I was interested in that had both English and a practical, hands-on film program.

In the summer after my freshman year, I decided that, as a growing storyteller, I should try doing things that created a life worth writing about. This led to a trip to British Columbia with the National Outdoor Leadership Program (NOLS), consisting of 30 days of mountaineering on the Waddington Range, a remote mountain range containing steep cliffs, jagged peaks, and sprawling ice fields, and 10 days of sea-sailing in the Strait of Georgia, surrounded by the wind and waves, encountering porpoises and orcas, stunning sunsets, and unbelievable scenery.

A picture of a man with a camera in his hands. He has brown hair and a while-and-blue striped shirt.
Austin Curtis on safari in the Maasai Mara.

We began with the basics of mountaineering and leadership, starting with backcountry cooking and basic travel skills, then quickly transitioned to the climbing curriculum as we moved onto the glacier, learning an array of knots, how to travel in a rope team, self-arrest, and belay while climbing rugged mountains and trekking across sprawling snowpacks. It was one of the most mentally and physically challenging things I’ve ever done.

I learned countless valuable lessons: to live and travel in the outdoors, to act with confidence and competence in a wild range of settings, to respect and collaborate with others on teams and in communities, how to care for myself and others, to understand my strengths and areas for growth, to function under difficult circumstances and make informed and thoughtful decisions, to communicate effectively, to connect with natural places, and to appreciate living simply.

There was plenty of time for self-reflection and contemplation while resting on rocks overlooking an endless sea of snow-capped peaks or watching the sunset on the deck of our boat, and I began to fuse the confidence I gained through the trip with the path I’d laid out for myself at MSU.

The next few years solidified and refined my path. I wrote constantly, picked up a camera and became a photographer, met wonderful people through clubs and the Spartan Housing Cooperative, and found another course-changing opportunity with the Content Studio in the College of Arts & Letters. Here, I had my first experience with writing and interviewing in a professional setting, and the past two years here have been one of my most valuable experiences at MSU.

A picture of a man standing on a boat deck. He has a hat and a sweater on.
Austin Curtis on deck in the Strait of Georgia.

Writing is often a solitary act, but my work with the Content Studio is heavily involved in the College of Arts & Letters community. I was privileged to interview students, staff, and faculty with inspiring and interesting stories to share, and to help translate their interests and passions into articles and stories reaching a wide audience.

In my work at the Content Studio, I found a type of writing that reminds me why I chose this path and that reminds me why I decided to write. I’ve learned that interviewing passionate people and capturing their passion in writing leads to articles that hopefully inspire others to pursue their passions at MSU and beyond. It has been an extremely rewarding challenge and has shown me that there are countless opportunities to encourage and uplift others through writing.

I also had the privilege of working with an exceptionally talented group of interns and supervisors, who supported me in my writing and academics. I also was privileged to work with mentors at the Content Studio who guided me, fellow interns who shared a passion for storytelling, and the constant opportunities that allowed me to explore and refine my storytelling craft.

Countless experiences at MSU have reaffirmed and supported my decision to pursue storytelling, from classes, professors, friends, and housemates, and especially a study abroad program, Visual Storytelling in Kenya. I was one of 12 students and two faculty members who traveled to Kenya to work with an artist collective and a community center in Nairobi, culminating in a four-day safari.

A picture of a man in a helicopter with a headset on. He wears a black jacket.
Austin Curtis in the back of a helicopter.

We created written and visual media for each group, meeting wonderful people and spreading their stories. I felt well-prepared for this through my work with the Content Studio, and it was extremely gratifying to apply what I’d learned to an entirely different context and adapt on the fly.

Another experience during my time at MSU that had a great impact on me was the Alternative Spartan Breaks I joined my second and third year at MSU. This spring break program is based on the idea of active citizenship where several groups travel to different communities to work on a variety of service opportunities and social issues, with diverse cultures and communities. I attended twice, first as a participant and then as a site leader. Both years we went to Pikeville, Tennessee, to work on the Cumberland Trail. Both experiences were important in shaping my time at MSU, especially in making me feel part of a community on campus.

As a participant, I was introduced to some wonderful people who helped me feel more at home at MSU and more confident in myself. Returning as a site leader allowed me to try and provide that same feeling of acceptance and confidence to others.  

As a site leader, I planned and led the entirety of the trip. I also led nightly reflections and education meetings, supporting participants as they processed their experiences on the trip. It was an incredibly valuable education in leadership and team-building skills, and it exposed me to two amazing groups of fellow students.

Now, at the brink of graduation, looking back at my time at MSU, I see all the lessons I learned, and the experiences I accumulated, laid out before me, and beside them are all the priceless memories I’ve made. As I move on, I do so with gratitude to the university and the amazing opportunities I’ve had here, all the wonderful people I’ve met, and all the stories I’ve watched, read, and made.


—Austin Curtis  

Austin Curtis is graduating from Michigan State University in December 2023 with a B.A. in English with a Literary Studies concentration and a B.A. in Digital Storytelling with a Concentration in Filmmaking. This article was originally published on the MSU College of Arts & Letters website