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Students team up for ISU’s Humans of New York spinoff

Jessica Manzella and Danny Zeh on the Quad

Illinois State students Jessica Manzella and Danny Zeh run the Humans of Illinois State page.

A student opens up about her eating disorder. Another recalls her pride in finishing a marathon. One describes the rush of singing the National Anthem at an arena, while another reveals his greatest fear—failure.

These are stories from the Humans of Illinois State, a new spinoff of the popular Humans of New York project. That online series famously chronicles the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, each sharing a revealing personal story or quote that’s paired with a photo that captures their essence.

Humans of Illinois State has struck a similar chord on campus. Run by students Jessica Manzella and Danny Zeh, its Facebook page has already reached 2,700 likes since launching in February.

“It’s kind of just blossomed and turned into this huge thing,” said Manzella, a senior environmental health major from Manhattan, Illinois. “We’re very proud of the page.”

Manzella and Zeh were both big fans of the New York project and teamed up for ISU’s spinoff after meeting as student workers at the Marketplace at Linkins dining center.

Armed with a camera and consent forms, Manzella and Zeh approach random Redbirds across campus—“hunting,” they call it—asking if they’ll answer a list of prepared questions: What was your greatest achievement? What is your biggest fear? What’s one of your biggest struggles in life?

The answers are simple but profound. While initially drawn to the photographic nature of the project, Zeh has come to realize through his interviews that “nobody is really typical or ordinary.”

“Eventually, everyone will have some great story,” said Zeh, a freshman secondary math education major from Hillside. “You never think about that.”

Some people decline to participate, of course. But even Brent Paterson, Illinois State’s interim vice president for Student Affairs, has been featured in the project.

“People are pretty willing,” Manzella said. “It’s really shocking and eye-opening that people go through all these different situations, and you don’t have any idea that they’re going through them.”

Humans of Illinois State has profiled around 25 people so far, mostly students. For Manzella, the best part is the connections that people make with those being profiled. The student’s story about the loss of her father sparked several comments from others with similar stories or words of encouragement for her.

“It’s really neat to see how everyone connects,” Manzella said.

Illinois State junior Joe Koppers was featured on Humans of Illinois State on March 3, sharing a life-changing moment when he saw his father cry after his mother underwent surgery.

It was an “incredible opportunity for me to tell a story about something that I was struggling with at the time,” said Koppers, a junior middle level education major.

“I have actually been approached a few times by students on the Quad who have recognized me as ‘that guy on Humans of ISU,’ and they thanked me for telling my story,” he said. “There has been nothing but positivity from that page, and I think it was an incredible idea. The stories are all so powerful.”

Zeh said he’d like to keep Humans of Illinois State alive after Manzella graduates later this year, although he may need to find a new partner to help handle the workload.

“This is my mark on the University,” Manzella said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.