Joining the Appalachian Teaching Project

Hello everyone! My name is Lauren Taylor and I’m a junior studying political science and psychology with a minor in theatre arts. My entire family on my mom’s side lives in South Africa. She was raised there with her two sisters in Johannesburg and, while my mom moved to the United States over 30 years ago, my aunts, cousins, and my cousins’ children all still live there. I’m lucky enough to be able to visit them every few years and, in total, I’ve visited South Africa over ten times!
Last semester, I was enrolled in Analysis of American Politics with Dr. Kristin Kanthak as my professor. Throughout the course, I was exposed to community based research (CBR) and was instantly intrigued by the concept, especially given how harmful it can be to communities when academia tries to intervene in a community without the necessary respect and education. During a lecture on community based research, Dr. Kanthak mentioned that she was going to be involved in a research project involving “brain drain” along the Appalachian trail. She said that a cohort of faculty at the University were leading the project and they needed students to join the team. While I didn’t quite know what the project was about, I thought it would be the perfect chance to get further involved in the department. The project was unlike any opportunity I had been presented with during my time here. After going to office hours and hearing more about it, I was set on being a part of the team.
The ATP aims to gather and produce research on “brain drain” along the Appalachian trail. It’s also about building a relationship between community partners in the affected areas we are working with, specifically Forest and Fayette County, Pennsylvania. By the end of the semester, the goal of the project, besides to build a strong and lasting relationship with the communities, is to develop a comprehensive understanding of “brain drain” in the region and to co-produce solutions on how to reverse the effects.
With community based research projects in general, the research aims to benefit students, the rest of the academic community, and actual community members. For this project, the students (including myself) will receive a unique opportunity to utilize their academic knowledge and personal experiences to navigate through a complex multidisciplinary issue. Academics in various fields, from political science to environmental science, will receive valued primary and secondary research and gain a much more comprehensive understanding of “brain drain” in Western PA. Finally, the university will provide myriad assets to the community in exchange for their participation in and engagement with the study. Essentially, both the University and community members provide resources that could not exist without the collaboration between everyone involved.
While the university stands to benefit from the results of this study, they also bear an immense responsibility to the community. A huge factor that put this community in its current situation was the growth and development of Alleghany county. Both Forest and Fayette County’s natural resources helped facilitate the growth of the “urban core of Pittsburgh” and, now, those resources have dried up. Because of this, our academic community must facilitate collaboration with these counties and work with the community that made our University what it is today.
By the end of the semester, I hope that we are able to set a solid foundation for future students and faculty working on the ATP project. This includes establishing a positive relationship with the community members and gathering critical primary and secondary research that other teams can build upon. If the project is going to flourish, our presence in the community needs to help depict the University of Pittsburgh as dedicated, trustworthy, respectful, and professional. Though our study is only the beginning of what will likely become a much longer research project, I hope that the work that we do in the next couple months can create a tangible impact within the community in the upcoming year. Most of what we are working towards with this project is creating an asset map and collaborating on solutions that can make a difference in the community. Being able to see the work I did during these next couple months play out in real life would be my biggest personal aspiration for this project.
One of the greatest academic goals I’ve had since my first year at the University of Pittsburgh was being a part of some sort of research. Pitt is a preeminent research institution and I would be remiss  if I didn’t get involved in some way. I was most interested in getting involved through the Political Science department since that’s what I consider my main area of focus and the ATP project is exactly the kind of research was looking to get involved with. Not only is the area of study exciting but it’s also hands-on which makes the work I’m about to do even more rewarding. It’s one thing to learn about political science and discuss different themes and ideas that could theoretically solve social and political issues, but to be able to take what I’ve learned in the classroom over the past two years and be able to apply it would increase my depth of knowledge and make for a more well-rounded education.
Additionally, I know that what I learn during the course of this project will help me in future academic endeavors. I plan to go to law school after graduation and I think that being a part of this project will help me to refine skills, such as attention to detail, problem- solving, and effective communication, that will improve my performance in the legal field. I am deeply motivated to participate in the ATP and am excited to be a part of this team, as I know I will not only become a better academic, but I will also help to create a tangible impact in the communities around me.

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