IST students reprise 'Stories of the Stolen' after attending competition

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last month, students from the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) attended the Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) competition domestic finals in Washington D.C., to promote their “Stories of the Stolen” campaign to battle online extremism.

Because the campaign was awarded an honorable mention in last semester’s competition, Mason Northrop and McKenzie Powell, two of seven IST students who created “Stories of the Stolen,” were able to present their project to marketplace attendees and hand out informational materials during the finals on Feb. 1.

In addition to generating interest within the intelligence and technology communities, Northrop and Powell hoped to garner fresh perspectives for improving their product for this semester’s competition, which they plan to submit again as a team of four students. “Stories of the Stolen,” an online memorial for victims of violent extremism and repository of stories about humans affected by terrorism, has been a labor of love for the team, one they are happy to continue improving.

“I absolutely love working on this project,” said Northrop, the team leader and a senior security and risk analysis (SRA) major. I feel like ‘Stories of the Stolen’ has the potential to become a globally recognized [site] where friends and family of victims of violent extremism can share personal stories and mourn together. It feels much bigger than any one of us on the team.“

While at the competition finals, Northrop and Powell had the opportunity to meet and speak to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a highlight of the trip for the students. “Sen. Warren stopped everything she was doing to chat quickly with us, asked our names, and what we were doing. She was genuinely interested,” said Powell, a junior majoring in IST and SRA. “It was amazing that in her hurry, [Warren] made time to talk to us and show she really cared. We learned that what we were doing mattered and was being looked at by people who are governing our country. That was great motivation for this semester.”

Since returning to classes this semester, the team of four students comprised of Northrop, Powell, Hope Wimer and Sean Parsons, under the guidance of faculty adviser Pete Forster, are busy improving their product for another shot at winning the PTP competition, including scholarships of up to $5,000 for the top three teams.

In its fifth term, the competition, now named Peer to Peer: Facebook Global Digital Challenge, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Facebook. Qualifying teams receive $2,000 to produce a real campaign that has measurable impact on their campus, community, and country.

The “Stories of the Stolen” team recently completed the first of three phases of their project: Remaking the website, reaching out to on-campus organizations, and holding a candlelight vigil for victims of violent extremism in the spring. Thanks to the help of Told Media in State College, the website has received a much-needed overhaul to make it more responsive and searchable, said Northrop. Since completing work on the website, the team has begun reaching out to various clubs and campus organizations to create more bios for their website.

“Our goal is to have a wide variety of stories that can represent the fact the violent extremism can impact any individual regardless of sex, ethnicity or religion. We are reaching out to social justice clubs on campus, or clubs that have special interests that can get us a wider variety of stories such a LGBT groups, Muslim Society and Black Student Union,” said Northrop, who hopes such organizations will help populate the new website with personal stories and raise awareness for others to do the same.

According to Powell and Northrop, the final phase is designed to unify the clubs that they hope will embrace the website as a collective means to spread the message of solidarity for all victims of violent extremism. “We plan on having a candlelit vigil event on Old Main at the end of the semester uniting everyone and encouraging students to speak out against extremism,” said Powell.

The culmination of two semesters of work for this highly motivated team of dedicated students is the competition finals this June. At that time, the team hopes someone will want to continue their work on the “Stories of the Stolen” website that is an inspiration and healing voice for victims and families. “I would be honored if this project was picked up by a larger organization. I don’t think there’s a memorial so inclusive and unifying around victims of violent extremism,” said Northrop.

To learn more about “Stories of the Stolen,” visit the campaign's website or follow on Facebook.

Last Updated April 10, 2017