My ATP Experience: A Reflection

As the semester comes to an end, my work on the Appalachian Teaching Project comes to an end as well (for now).The 3rd of December marked our last presentation for the project and our last official session together as a group. But, even before the time of our final presentation, our team had already produced all of the deliverables that we had been working on all semester. In no particular order, we had created a data dictionary which laid out our working definitions we utilized in our map and presentation that future groups can look to, to understand how we were defining assets and several other categories. Next, we had a database made on an excel spreadsheet that includes georeferenced information about the assets in Fayette County. These assets came from our observations during our field visit and our supplementary online research. This led us to be able to create our most important deliverable, the asset map. We had all worked together to produce a visual representation of what we thought to be the most valuable people, places, etc., (but a special shoutout to Julia who digitally put it all together). After looking at our findings, we collaborated on a recommendation memo that included what we hope to see for this project in the future that next year’s research team can use as guidance as they start their work on this continuing project and that Connellsville residents and leaders can possibly implement themselves. Finally, for the ATP convention, we created a poster that gave a summary of our experience with the project.

One recommendation that I really hope Connellsville can implement is the utilization of local venues that Kerry, one of my peers on this project, suggested during the final presentation. I think that one of the biggest reasons that Connellsville has such a hard time retaining and attracting younger crowds to settle down is the lack of social opportunity. As someone who is  friends with a lot of current seniors, I hear a lot about what they are looking for post graduation. And, I’ve found that one of the biggest factors in their decision is the location of their future job. They want to be somewhere with nightlife and activities where they can spend their free time after work and on the weekends. Using local venues like the Comfort Inn to host drinking socials and have local artists and bands come play is a huge step in catering towards young people that might otherwise move in order to get some of those experiences. Likewise, when starting out, young professionals are also looking for places where they can network and, without any social opportunities, finding other professionals becomes increasingly difficult. That’s why I think that utilizing spaces that Connellsville already has to create a greater sense of community with the younger age demographic is incredibly important and a very achievable solution at the moment. Which is why it is the recommendation that I would push for right away to continue to combat brain drain in the area. 

Before starting this project, I hardly had any scope of what the Appalachian region was or its significance. I knew from what Dr. Kanthak had explained when I first heard about the project that the area was in serious danger of brain drain. This was explained to me as the migration of the population (especially younger, working populations) from an area to find a higher quality of living. And even then, I had no idea why the quality of living was so low in some of these areas. All I knew was that they were mostly small towns in some sort of “danger”. After some preliminary research and reading an article about brain drain in the Appalachian region, I began to understand a bit more of what the “problems” were in these areas. Basically, a lack of high paying jobs, an aging population, and negative self and outside perceptions were all common factors in these Appalachian communities and towns. For our research purposes, we were focused on Fayette County which was about a one hour drive from the University. I did not know a single thing about Fayette County or Connellsville before my first project meeting (-I didn’t even know they existed). Needless to say my perceptions of this county changed drastically from week one to our final presentation at the Appalachian Teaching Project conference. 

When I first started looking into the area, my initial thoughts were that it didn’t have much to offer a younger population. There was little nightlife, seemingly few tourist attractions, and, just in general, the town seemed to be outdated. After an interview with Daniel and Michael from the Fayette County Cultural Trust, I realized that Connellsville was a lot more than it originally seemed. The GAP Trial and the Youghiogheny River had provided many recreational activities and the proximity to Falling Water could also attract outsiders, especially outdoorsy people, to the area. Likewise, I didn’t realize how much public art and unique businesses filled the town, as well as how many festivals were put on each year that also gave the town a certain magnitude. Essentially, there was plenty to work with and a plethora to put on an asset map. By the end of the project, I had a complete appreciation for Fayette County, but more specially Connellsville since that was our main focus of the project due to time constraints. This town had gone through a complete revitalization and actually had the youngest population out of all the areas in the county. The theme of our presentation actually ended up being “strong and resilient” because of how much effort community members had put into the town. To be completely honest, they had already done such a thorough job combating brain drain on their own I feel like we could’ve been much more helpful to a different area in Fayette County. Nonetheless, I’m so glad Connellsville ended up being our focus. 

In 60 years when I look back on my experience working on this project, I’ll remember it as a very formative chapter in my college career. I would summarize it as a project where the students were in charge and, if we didn’t take certain initiatives and step up as leaders, very few things would have gotten done. I had never done anything like this before. Being the first group of students on such a massive project was a little intimidating. I really could not have asked for a more supportive and intelligent group of people to work with. Every week, I kept waiting for more guidance on how we were supposed to be going about our research or creating the deliverables but there wasn’t any. Nobody had ever done this before and it really pushed out of our comfort zone (in a good way). There were a few times where I wasn’t sure if we were really going to pull everything off but, when it came down to it, we all came together and made a presentation that we could all be proud of. My confidence in my own abilities in research and in presenting increased dramatically as well as my ability to work efficiently and effectively in a group. I also feel as though my people skills matured as there were many times we were talking to important leaders and community members and I was expected to conduct myself professionally. Overall, I put a lot of hard work into this project and was more than happy with the results. Additionally, the student and faculty relationships that I made along the way definitely increased my positive experience with the project.

This course is incredibly different from any other classes that I’ve taken here at Pitt. For one thing, this was my first experience doing actual research. As a junior political science and psychology double major, I’ve now taken three courses at the University on research methods but this has been the only experience where I was the one collecting and actually applying the research. The closest experiences I’ve had to doing something like this were group research projects where we’d be assigned a topic and had to share what we learned. While slightly similar when it came to presentation, the Appalachian Teaching Project was a very different experience. For starters, my peers and I were the ones creating the primary research for this project. While we did look to online resources to fill in the gaps of our research, much of the information in our deliverables and our presentation were attributed to our experiences and interviews with the townspeople. Also, I felt as though my relationship to the faculty on the team was more mutual and more supportive than in my other classes because 1) of the nature of  community based research projects and 2) because of the level of trust shown by the professors. 

While I really enjoyed my work on this project, and will probably continue my work next fall as a returning member since I’m only a junior, I don’t see myself doing this type of work professionally. I really did love the experience as a researcher and working with a team as well as doing field work- which is something I’d never thought I’d get the opportunity to do. However, post graduation, I plan on going to law school outside of the Appalachian region. Though, in the meantime while I’m still a student, I’m still very interested in learning more about the Appalachian region and do feel more personally invested in the success of the community. I’m ecstatic that I got to be a part of this project and I really do hope that it does work out next year that I am able to be a part of it again next fall.

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