When Braxton Martorano ’22 came to Butler University in August 2019, he experienced a bit of culture shock. As a first-year student from a diverse city, he quickly realized that Butler’s culture was more homogeneous than he expected. That set the stage for a student–professor mentorship that would alter the course of his undergraduate experience and career.

Coming from Michigan City, Indiana, he brought a unique perspective to campus life. Majoring in Economics, Martorano’s journey at Butler took an unexpected turn when he enrolled in Dr. Tom Mould’s Anthropology class, “The Power of Everyday Stories.”

Martorano wrote a message on the whiteboard in his dorm that year that said, “How to change perspective on diversity?” The answer would come in the form of a collaboration with Mould, Professor of Anthropology and Folklore.

Mould is a professor known for his mentorship abilities and innovative approaches to teaching. He is passionate about using stories to understand human behaviors and societal norms. He also highly values student involvement in practical projects. His work with Martorano is an excellent example of how he blends traditional instruction with hands-on experience.

“As an Economics major, I didn’t think I’d take an Anthropology class,” Martorano says. However, “The Power of Everyday Stories” is a First-Year Seminar class, part of Butler University’s Core Curriculum. The class focused on examining the power of narratives in personal, societal, political, and cultural contexts, striving to decipher the stories that shape our beliefs. Mould—known as “Dr. Tom” to his students—aims to equip students with the skills to be better evaluators and critical thinkers capable of persuasive storytelling rooted in empathy.

Mould recalls, “Braxton was the guy in class who didn’t just have those clarification questions but pushed beyond the material, and he wasn’t satisfied with the pat answers that were given by me or his peers.”

In spring 2020, Martorano went to Mould’s office and asked him about the question he was grappling with: “How to change people’s perspectives about racial equity and allyship to create a more inclusive campus.” Having taken Mould’s class, he knew what the answer would be: through stories. They began to develop a project that involved recording the stories of people’s experiences on campus around issues of race with the goal of developing a workshop for students to develop greater racial allyship on Butler’s campus. However, collaboration was key. 

“We knew there needed to be more voices before anything could be done,” Mould says. Two students joined the project. First, Donald Crocker, then Cameron Ellison. Both were in Mould’s FYS class and understood the power of stories and storytelling. As Black students at Butler, Crocker and Ellison were able to draw on their own experiences to help shape the project and conduct collaborative and ethical fieldwork.

During their research, they interviewed students of color as well as white students, exploring the theme of student experiences across racial lines. Mould mentored the researchers on how to do fieldwork, leading to evidence of recurring themes. Open coding methods were employed to analyze the stories they gathered, resulting in themes revolving around microaggression, feelings of not belonging, and recognition of privilege. They shared these findings with the College’s board members and student groups, aiming to inspire conversations and understanding.

“We wanted to tell people’s stories in a respectful manner,” Mould emphasizes. That’s where co-collaborator Emily Fales ’22 excelled. Leveraging her videography skills, she filmed interviews with students, avoiding the extraction of stories and allowing people to speak directly from their experiences. The visual element added a profound dimension, enabling viewers to connect on a deeper level by looking into the eyes of those sharing their stories. This not only preserved the authenticity of narratives but also heightened the emotional impact, fostering greater empathy among the audience.

They managed to record several poignant narratives throughout their research project, despite having challenges. Early on, Martorano struggled. “The thought would creep back in about how I’m just an Economics major,” he says. “What am I doing? We had such a big task in front of us that involved a bunch of people, and with students telling me traumatic experiences, it was hard not to be overcome with empathy.”

Mould was there to empower him and encourage him to keep going.

The most meaningful feedback they got was that people felt heard. “We expected the greatest impact to be on white students, but the impact was as great or greater for students of color,” Mould says. Their research influenced perspectives across the student body. White students said they gained insights about their peers’ experiences they hadn’t considered before; students of color said they felt less alone.

“I want to build something that lives beyond me,” Martorano says. “I don’t want to write a paper that’s just seen by two people.” And he was successful. He and Mould have worked with the Efroymson Diversity Center, which will take over the project in 2024. It will be a part of Butler’s curricula for diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Further, the team plans to publish their methods, hoping that other universities could emulate their efforts.

According to Mould, the Gallup-Purdue Index reports found that students who feel seen and guided by a faculty member are more than twice as likely to report happiness in their careers and lives. The satisfaction of making a meaningful impact on students’ lives is one of the great joys of being a faculty member.

“When I went to school as an Economics major, I always assumed I would work for a for-profit company. That’s just what you do,” Martorano says. But after working alongside Mould and seeing how he did so much work for the sake of helping someone else or making their life better, Martorano wanted to do the same. He is now a business consultant for the Indy Chamber of Commerce. He works in lending and coaching minority-owned and women-owned businesses.

“This mentorship has given me much more confidence in my career,” Martorano says. “We often say as young people, ‘This is just the way it is,’ but walking alongside a wise faculty member and looking at the world, the impact is really broad. I no longer have to accept ‘That’s just how it is.’ I know there is something we can do.”