Although my time working with the Pitt Appalachian Teaching Project team has come to an end, the work of the ATP itself is poised to continue for years to come. This has been perhaps the most rewarding aspect of our work–knowing that we have laid the groundwork for future groups to build off of and strengthen the partnership between Pitt and Fayette County.
Before getting to know the city and its residents, my perception of the Appalachian region was limited to the parts I had encountered growing up in Virginia and visiting Tennessee and Kentucky. Appalachia is certainly not a monolith, and the realities for these parts of Appalachia are largely not applicable for the Appalachia of Southwestern Pennsylvania. I learned so much more about how coal and coke production of the 19th and 20th centuries in this region contributed to the current circumstances, as well as the unique and exceptional history that Connellsville specifically holds. From its legacy in the WWII era as a stopover for troops passing through the B&O Railroad station, to its significance today due to its position on the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and its historical richness, I have loved getting to know all the different pieces of this fascinating city.
While I greatly value the intangible products of our research, the ATP team has plenty of tangible deliverables as well. This includes notes from the interviews we conducted with community members on our site visit in October, an interactive asset map created in ArcGIS that can continue to grow and evolve with successive cohorts, the spreadsheet of data points used to create the map, a data dictionary which explains the categories of assets presented in the map, our final presentations for both the Connellsville community and the Appalachian Regional Conference’s virtual ATP conference, as well as our research poster for the ARC. All of these deliverables will serve to provide necessary context for future Pitt ATP participants to more easily pick up where we left off. More importantly, however, these deliverables help us provide the Connellsville community with a sense of transparency and collaboration. These are principles which contribute to a community-engaged approach and dismantle historical rural-urban contentions. In continually exchanging knowledge with Connellsville residents, both parties will emerge more connected and more successful.
In my opinion, one of the most promising recommendations presented for Connellsville’s redevelopment is to involve the local high school students in the city’s beautification and outreach efforts. If I were able to magically implement just one of our recommendations, it would certainly be that one. Not only does engaging the youth population in meaningful, community-oriented work help them establish strong roots in Connellsville and reduce brain drain, but it also capitalizes on the city’s intrinsic strengths and cultivates efficacy for those involved in their own community’s development. Connellsville has already implemented similar concepts through the collaboration with Connellsville Career and Technical Center students building birdhouses to display around the city, so this suggestion would surely be a natural addition to this process.
Working on this project has both reinforced my intended career path, as well as illuminated new prospects. I have been attracted to the processes of economic development and capacity building in my political science and urban planning studies, and this project has only cemented this further. I am even more interested in pursuing community-engaged work in the future, although my interests generally lie more in international affairs, especially in Italy and the Arab world. That being said, I have grown an affinity for Appalachia and Southwestern Pennsylvania through this project and would be more than happy to continue working on projects throughout the Pittsburgh region and learning its intricacies. I have familiarized myself to many of the assets that Connellsville and Fayette County have to offer, and although my future plans still focus more internationally, I am certain that the region could welcome a considerable influx of young professionals in the near future. With telework gaining traction and a promising outlook even beyond the pandemic, urban centrality is no longer a precondition for success in the workforce. Therefore, smaller cities like Connellsville have the potential to be highly advantageous locations to work, play, and live in.
Working with the ATP has given me a new perspective on the region and been an impactful experience for my personal and academic development. Even beyond the ability it provided me to apply my studies in a more practical fashion, the ATP has connected me to resources at Pitt and organizations across the region, as well as a group of intelligent and like-minded students. The process of working together with these students and with community members and leaders has been extremely gratifying, and I know that the experience will continue to benefit me well after I graduate. It has been different from any other class I have taken during my time at Pitt in that it afforded me the opportunity to not only expand my theoretical knowledge of economic development and capacity building, but also to interact directly with community members and engage in research that takes place in the field. It also fostered a more interdisciplinary approach to a broader issue–something that is difficult to find in classes under a specific major or department.
Overall, I am grateful to have been able to participate in the research my team and I conducted this semester, and I hope to remain engaged with Connellsville and the ATP’s work for years to come. Thank you to Dr. Glass for introducing me to this opportunity, to all of the amazing and dedicated faculty members involved in the project who supported us throughout our journey, and to my classmates for being such enthusiastic and hardworking collaborators. The semester may have come to an end, but this project is just getting started.