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September 19, 2023

Modern storyteller brings tales to University

Graduate student, Csenge Zalka, is a professional storyteller and she has a master’s degree to prove it.

Zalka came from her native country, Hungary, to the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar in 2007 to pursue her passion for storytelling.

She earned a Master of Arts in Storytelling at East Tennessee State University, the only university in the country with a master’s program in storytelling, before coming to the University this past August to research contemporary storytelling for her Ph.D in American Culture Studies.

Zalka, now a professional storyteller for the past seven years, said she always loved hearing and telling stories to her family and friends when she was younger but didn’t know it could be a career.

“I didn’t know until I went to college that this is an actual profession and you can do it full-time and be paid as a storyteller,” Zalka said. “When I found out, I knew instantly that that was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

The feeling when a story “clicks” for her and then being able to share it with others is why Zalka said she loves storytelling.

“It’s a great experience when you are really interested in a story and you get to go and tell it to other people and see their faces and see them enjoying the story as much as you do,” she said.

Zalka “adopts” a local school wherever she lives and tells stories to students for free in exchange for the school being a place where she can try out her new stories.

She most recently adopted St. Aloysius Elementary and Junior High School where she tells stories to classes such as history, religion and language arts.

“We’re really lucky to have her offer that service,” said Erica Gurney, a sixth and seventh grade history teacher at St. Aloysius. “The kids were really impressed with how she could remember the stories and then they found out that her first language is Hungarian and then they were like, ‘you’re telling all of these stories in your second language? How do you do that?’”

Zalka, whose favorite genre to tell is mythology, said coming to the U.S. introduced her to personal stories, which are more popular here.

Last week, Zalka was a featured storyteller in the 2013 Stories Connect Us All Online Storytelling Festival, an international online festival that shares videos of storytellers telling personal stories about overcoming racial, ethnic and religious issues.

Zalka’s story, “Will You Please NOT Marry Me? – Adventures in Cross-Cultural Dating,” is about the culture shock of Americans assuming that dating an American man meant she wanted to marry him for a green card.

Susan O’Halloran, a professional storyteller who coordinated the festival, said Zalka’s story provided a lighter story among other more serious topics like Japanese incarceration camps and genocide.

“Our festival deals with social issues and social justice issues but when it comes right down to it, it’s really nice to have some fun things like how to date and different ideas of love, so I was really glad to have her piece for the international perspective,” she said.

Besides being a professional storyteller, Zalka is also a published author. Her collection of short historical fiction novels was published in Hungary and her first collection in English, “Tales of Superhuman Powers: 55 Traditional Stories from Around the World,” was released three weeks ago in the U.S.

Zalka said storytelling will always be part of her life but she might pursue some of her other interests as well.

“I definitely want to keep performing as a storyteller, even if it’s not a complete full-time job,” she said. “If I could go into game design, that would be interesting and I also really enjoy teaching so we’ll see what happens.”

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