ATP Reflection: Find What You Love.

The first installation of the Appalachian Teaching Project has reached its conclusion at Pitt. In the end, our group met our primary goal! We created a working asset map to fuel and encourage further community development work in Connellsville and the larger Fayette county area. We made a series of deliverables—specific presentations, data tables, and summarizations of information that we used to share with the people of Connellsville and at the Appalachian Teaching Project 2021 Virtual Conference. Both presentations required much of the same information; however, they are each slightly tailored to fit their corresponding audiences. As found on our MS Teams page, our main deliverables are the ATP Conference Presentation, ATP Poster, and the Asset Map. Our presentations and finals don’t exist solely by themselves—numerous other minor documents in which we’ve compiled information, recorded interviews, defined terms, outlined our methods, etc. All of which support the main documents. 

If I could wave my hand to implement one of our recommendations to Connellsville automatically, it would be to see a more extensive schedule of festivals that draw larger crowds of people. Doing so would enable Connellsville to share its uniqueness with unfamiliar visitors, enabling the people to become naturally encapsulated with the area. It would bring foot traffic to the area, and, although it wouldn’t directly contribute to increasing the area’s employment, it wouldn’t hurt. 

My perception of the Appalachian region hasn’t changed very much due to this course and the work I’ve done this semester. However, it’s given me a new experience and redefined how I view Fayette county and other impoverished regions within Pennsylvania. My prior research and experiences were mainly rooted in the mountains of West Virginia. Here, I read theory and local color literature beside rivers and existed as an Appalachian. I became experienced within my community first. Connellsville and Fayette county, through this project, enabled me to re-experience a small Appalachian town. It helped me delve back into a community and learn the people, giving me the chance to hear stories of success, hope, and perseverance. This experience reconfirmed my feelings towards Appalachia—that it’s embedded with strong and resilient communities that house kind, intelligent, and incredibly resourceful people. 

Professionally, I’m not sure what kind of living I could earn from supporting Appalachia when it’s already given me so much. I owe the total sum of my life experiences to growing up in the valleys and foothills of the mountains—what more could I expect to take from this place? I think, if anything, my work with Appalachia will continue pro bono, giving back to the communities and making a living elsewhere. I think that’s the way I’ll be able to give back the most to the place I love. 

I don’t think there are many instances where a tempting enough offer would recruit me to work in Fayette county. Many factors and excuses play into this decision; however, it’s mainly because I already have a home in Appalachia with my roots. It’s familiar and intimate, and if I were to live in Appalachia, it would be hard not to find myself moving back there. This section of my response was probably much too personal and avoidant of the actual question, but it’s what came to me now.

When I’m old and gray, I’d explain this entire experience to my grandchildren as beneficial to my professional and academic careers. I learned more about my leadership style. Rather than assuming a dominant role with my peers, I took a less direct approach. Instead of working with people who didn’t want to be working, the entire group wanted to participate and contribute to the project. By the end, we didn’t need somebody to be a formal leader among the students because we all found ourselves contributing and picking up slack. In addition to my leadership style evolving into cooperating with a group of leaders, I gained experience from which I could launch. During the Spring 2022 semester, I plan to intern for the Fayette County Cultural Trust, still volunteering my time in Appalachia, just with a slightly different client. Instead of working with our partners from this term, I’ll be working for them, contributing to the evolution of Appalachia in a somewhat different way. I’m not exactly sure the type of work I’ll be doing, but I’m ready to do most everything they need me to. I’m eager to branch out, network, and seize each bit of this opportunity. 

I’ll use it to encourage them to take courses and choose paths that interest them, as those will be the ones most fruitful. If they’re like me and learning about Appalachia is their passion, I’ll encourage them to take that path; however, if it’s something else, then I’ll still be right behind them, pushing them towards what they love. Studying and researching Appalachia’s history is something that’s led me down numerous beneficial paths—it led to me receiving a Summer Undergraduate Research Award, a spot in this term’s Appalachia Teaching Project, a position as an undergraduate teaching assistant with Dr. Andrew Lotz, and the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship to enhance my experience with Dr. Lotz further. By paving my path and exploring a topic that fascinates me, I’ve found myself supported by the University of Pittsburgh. I will be forever grateful to have had an institution backing me and my academic goals, financially sponsoring me to dedicate all my time to topics that deserve it. 

In advising my grandchildren, I would tell them to find what they love and let it encapsulate them. It might still feel like work, though it’ll be less burdening. I’m reminded of a quote by poet and novelist Charles Bukowski that reads, “Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness.” Though this comes from a very passionate letter, and although the morals and ethics of Bukowski are often visibly problematic, I find this quote of his helpful. It’s given me self-guided direction, and it’s led me down more successful paths than I could have ever imagined. I’ve worked hard to get myself into this position, and I’m thankful for the opportunities that still find their way to me. I’m incredibly fortunate.

I’ll remind them to be humble, as this project has encouraged me to maintain a sense of humility when working with any type of person. By approaching situations meekly, you welcome others to share their truths first, giving them the initial chance to educate you rather than vice versa. While working on my section of the Connellsville presentation, the professors reminded me to present to the Connellvsillve citizens and speak to them as they are the experts and as the students are the learners. Following this took our group far. At the presentation’s conclusion, our partners looked happy, and the community members who showed up were more than willing to participate and offer feedback. They remained integral aspects of our study, as they knew more about the town and area than we could have ever hoped to imagine—especially in just a single semester. 

This course differed from all others I’ve taken so far because it immersed me in the community. It paired the theory with real-life scenarios that required us to be adaptive and responsive. It enabled us to converse with community members and return to the classroom to share the information we gathered. It was a real-life case study where the data we collected has an actual purpose, hopefully eventually seeding itself back into the community and providing Fayette county’s members with a platform to embrace their successes and accomplishments. The area has already done so much to simultaneously embrace its roots and tread ahead towards the future, paving a hopeful path that leads people back into the community as long-term inhabitants of the ecosystem. 

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