Hey everyone! My name is Madeline Hoestermann, and I am a senior at Pitt. My major is Political Science, and I am minoring in French and Administration of Justice. This summer, I had the chance to study abroad in London for 4 weeks – hopefully I’ll be back soon! This picture was taken at Sky Garden, London’s highest public garden, located on the top floor of a funny-looking skyscraper aptly named the Walkie-Talkie. A fact about me is that I am always planning my next adventure, and will always try to find a way to make it happen!
The Appalachian Teaching Project is an experiential learning project that explores the conjunction between different disciplines including political science, sustainability, and urban studies in order to support development and economic initiatives of communities within Appalachia. Relatedly, we study the phenomenon of out-migration among Appalachian communities known as the ‘brain-drain’, in which young, educated members of the community leave in order to seek opportunities, academic or employment, that are not available to them at home. Our research team is coordinating with the community partners of the Fayette County Cultural trust. The Fayette County Cultural trust is a non-profit with a mission to enrich the county’s quality of life by utilizing assets that already exist in the community. Therein lies the importance behind this project – enriching quality of life. The Appalachian region has been exploited for its resources, leaving the region and its people behind and forgotten. Looking inward allows the community to become empowered by their own strengths.
Of particular interest to me is the town-gown tension that often arises between meddling universities that bulldoze through towns without regard for residents. There are endless possibilities for benefits for both the university and the town if there was coordination, but for a variety of reasons, we often don’t see that. As we begin our study and interaction with the region, it is important to keep in mind the importance of cooperation and friendship with members of the community. I hope that from this semester of our project, we can plant roots with the community and build those ties so that our successors can easily transition and build on the foundations that we have made. Through this relationship that we build, the school and future students will have a greater recognition of community needs and social problems that can better shape solutions.
After I graduate from Pitt, I plan to go to law school in pursuit of my J.D. During my time abroad in London, I studied wrongful convictions with U.S defense attorney and founder of the California Innocence Project, Justin Brooks. My ultimate career goal is to work for an exoneration project such as the Innocence Project to advocate for defendants who have been mistreated in the criminal justice system. An important principle that our professor taught us for defense work was getting into the case and doing the investigating yourself. For example, visiting the crime scene, speaking to witnesses, administering tests, etc. I believe that the community based research of the ATP is a way for me to take that principle into practice. By actually going into the community and seeing both the assets as well as the needs of the community first-hand, we will gain a much deeper connection to the work that we are doing, which is essential for success. Speaking to the business owners, teachers, elected officials, young professionals, and students will help me in my career goals by showing me how one can connect with the people they work for. Research is, in my opinion, a lot like criminal advocacy in which one can run the risk of developing a savior complex. The ATP is a lesson in the fact that we are going into these communities to work together to help them, not to save them.
One of the reasons I was interested in joining this project is because I took Analysis of American Politics with Dr. Kanthak last semester, and I wanted the opportunity to work with her more closely now that we are able to meet in person. We spent a lot of time discussing the merits of community-based research, and it was exciting to finally have the chance to engage in CBR instead of just reading about it. Because of the pandemic, there were almost no chances for me to become more involved in my major. I wanted to be able to do that before I graduated because even though I don’t plan on pursuing Political Science in the immediate future, I personally find the field and the work being done in it fascinating. Another reason I wanted to join this project was to become more aware of my surroundings. I have lived in Pittsburgh for four years now, and hardly ever ventured out of the city. It never occurred to me until enrolling in Dr. Kanthak’s capstone course that we are actually in Appalachia. Pittsburgh is an interesting entity in that it shares some sense of community ties with Appalachia, but it is, economically, one of the most successful areas of the region. As University of Pittsburgh students, we have an interesting perspective of how we see Appalachia and the opportunities we associate with being at college in comparison to the town-gown divide.
During this project, I hope to work on my interviewing skills. This is a skill I hope to hone in on and perfect while we speak to members of the community because it is vital for my future career goals. I will aim to be prepared going into the interviews, and be able to maintain a conversation that is mutually beneficial to both parties. This experience will overall be a wonderful opportunity to grow as both a team member and an academic while paving new paths. I am looking forward to collaborating with every member of the team and I am so thankful to be among such intelligent people. I can’t wait to see what we come up with, and to travel to Washington, D.C together to present our hard work to other students from universities in Appalachia!