OGDEN -- If you traveled to a foreign land and strangers on the street looked you over, what would they say about you behind your back?
And what if you handed them a marker and asked them to write impressions, good or bad, on the back of your T-shirt?
Britni Howe, a May graduate of Weber State University, took that challenge last summer when she traveled to Berlin and participated in a multicollege "Sticks + Stones" project, designed to uncover prejudices and preconceptions people hold for those who they perceive as different.
Howe, a former graphic design student, got mostly nice or neutral comments, along with one unwelcome come-on and the personal phone number of a man who serenaded her with opera music.
"I sometimes felt they were just being polite with me," said Howe, 23, of South Ogden. "I think the public were much more brutal with the men who participated in this exercise. All the guys who wore the shirts said that was not something they would like to volunteer for again.
"It was kind of an interesting twist. Our exhibit was also starting to include some gender biases which we had not anticipated for this particular project."
Sticks + Stones has won the international Core77 Design Education Initiatives Award for its Berlin 2010 project. Six WSU design students and Mark Biddle, a Weber State visual arts professor and a project coordinator, took part in the workshops, which also included art students from China, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Israel and Germany.
Biddle said comments written on shirt backs ranged from "A good idea, continue" and "Not typical Utah girl," on Howe's shirt, to "Obama," "Morgan Freeman" and "Will Smith" written on a black student's back. A Chinese student who got a sexually disparaging remark written on his back asked that his T-shirt be removed from the exhibit.
Sticks + Stones had multiple student-created projects besides the T-shirt writing, and all were related to prejudice, Biddle said. The 40 students began their two weeks in Germany by touring Sachsenhausen, a World War II concentration camp where more than 30,000 prisoners met their death.
"It's always a shocker, seeing the living quarters, the living conditions, and the ovens still there," Biddle said. "It was a real eye-opening experience, and it helped our students understand the extremes of prejudice."
Howe said the T-shirt experiment was uncomfortable.
"It was harder then I thought it would be to approach people and ask them to sign," she said, sharing her impressions by email. "Some people would just shake their head and walk away as if we were selling something, while others would participate, but only to be polite, I think. I didn't get too many people to sign my shirt."
Shirts were exhibited in a German art museum.
Howe said Sticks + Stones was a positive experience.
"I learned to communicate in a whole new way," she said. "I remember one instance having to translate from English to German to Chinese and back. Even the simplest of ideas all of a sudden became very hard to communicate."
Howe liked the project.
"In the end I think our ability to overcome all the various obstacles and, as a whole, create a cohesive message really had some major impact on us," she said.
Sam DeMastrie, 24, of South Ogden, was another Weber State student who made the trip, but he was not part of the T-shirt project.
"I actually wished I had done it, but it seemed like it would make me nervous, talking to locals and having them be totally honest. I heard a lot of people say it was not a comfortable experience."
DeMastrie said he still learned a lot from the Sticks + Stones project.
"The most valuable thing I took away was seeing all the stereotypes and preconceived notions I had built up in my mind, from the media, society or whatever. Seeing those torn down was really educational. It felt good. You meet people from the other side of the planet, and you learn yeah, you can communicate with them.
"I think it would be really healthy for everybody to experience a different culture, even if it's just for a few weeks. It changed so much about my outlook on life and the world. Seeing how other people live puts things into perspective. There is more about people from different parts of the world that is the same than there is that is different."