Joining the ATP Teaching Project

Rachel Lenard, Urban Studies/GIS ’23

Hi everyone! My name is Rachel Lenard and I am a senior at Pitt majoring in Urban Studies with a certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). A fun fact about myself is that I am a huge sports fan. I am also one of the leaders of the Oakland Zoo, the official student section of the men’s and women’s basketball teams here at Pitt.

I first came to Pitt undecided and quickly found my place in the Urban Studies department by the end of my freshman year. I appreciated the multidisciplinary nature of the major and enjoyed learning about the social sciences. I have a particular interest in geography, which led me to pursue the GIS certificate.

Before coming to Pitt, I grew up in the near suburbs of Washington, D.C. I was looking for something similarly urban to my hometown and that is how I eventually wound up in Pittsburgh. What I got was a perfect mix of city life, rich culture, and deep-rooted community. I have no regrets coming to Pittsburgh, truly see it as my new home, and am planning to stay here after graduation.

I joined the Appalachian Teaching Project through a discussion with my advisor, Dr. Michael Glass. He had recommended taking a course called Special Topics: The Appalachian Region in Question. There was the option to add a one-credit honors extension which provided me with an opportunity to work with student researchers across multiple other capstone courses to do fieldwork in Fayette County, PA. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) had designated Fayette County’s economic status as “at-risk”, meaning it ranked within the bottom 20% of economies nationwide. This is largely due to a process called the “brain drain” which involves educated people moving out of an area due to the lack of resources and opportunity.

The project involved visiting two areas of interest within the county: the cities of Connellsville and Uniontown, PA. We collected primary interviews from community members, business owners, and government officials. With this information, we then created a set of deliverables as well as short- and long-term recommendations for both communities and their respective governments.

One of the biggest problems in the country is the rural-urban divide. With a greater understanding of the community through direct engagement, we hoped to capture all the valuable input from those we heard from in order to assess the strengths, weaknesses, and overall culture of these communities.

I hope to work in the GIS sector one day and can see much of this research applying to my future goals. As I will mention in the next blog post, we created an asset map as well as a Google map which are both interactive and will continue to be managed and expanded upon during future cohorts of this project.

One of the biggest things I learned from this experience is that I am interested in pursuing more opportunities in service and especially experiential learning. I enjoyed collecting the data and turning that into deliverables from the community, and felt at the end of this semester that myself and my classmates had made a real impact. All of us will be continuing on with this project through internship programs run in the spring of 2023. Being a part of this group and this research projects was truly one of the best and most rewarding experiences of my life, and I am grateful to Pitt and the Frederick Honors College for having this program and dedicating 10 years of research to improving the outcomes of Pennsylvanian Appalachia.

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