Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative

Hi! My name is Emilia Morris and I am a sophomore Urban Studies and prospective Social Work major. I am working toward a Certificate in Sustainability along with a Civic Learning Distinction. I am originally from a small suburb in New Jersey and have been slowly becoming accustomed to the “city life” of Pittsburgh. I put this in quotation as coming from the East Coast and New York being the closest city, Pittsburgh offers its own unique definition of what an urban area means to me. The saying I put forth is that if Seattle is the city that never sleeps Pittsburgh is the one bed (and they will be in bed by 10 p.m). I am currently part of the student Civic Engagement Council with the PittServes office acting as program coordinator for local nonprofits in the area. I am also a first-year resident assistant and have absolutely loved having my own room. Other ways I involve myself on campus are through the recreational climbing club and occasional triathlon practices.

Some previous jobs that I’ve had, which in my opinion are very niche, have been as a camp counselor, a dog bather, and a “PET Enrichment Specialist” at a dog hotel. I don’t think you can encounter many dog hotel workers but what I can tell you about my job is that we had a swimming pool, treadmills, and a 5 o’clock happy hour for our guests, the dogs. While I believe a lot of these experiences have led me to the University of Pittsburgh, it was my past job this summer that really solidified my interests.

This past summer I worked with the New York New Jersey Trail conference as a trail builder for an Americorps term of service. This job opened up my horizons to the world of conservation and how I could be an active contributor to making my environment better. I think as an experiential-based learner, I like to preach what I’ve done. I’m open to constantly learning about a new field of work so that I can add it to my repertoire of knowledge. Going into the job there was hesitancy of how I was going to relate this to Urban Studies. I was in fact in the opposite environment of any urban area you’ve seen in America. The woods I would show up to every day did not compare to the “concrete jungle” I was basing my career aspirations on. However, I learned I was privileged to work within nature, a privilege many people in urban areas are not given the chance to do. Up until a more modern view of urban planning, cities were separated from rural and suburban areas. Historical contexts tell us the systemic racism that has perpetuated urban planning for decades has cut off inner-city folk from a big part of what America prides itself on.

The American dream stems from exploring the great outdoors offered through our national, state, and local parks. America has always been about camping and conservation as they all were part of a great movement of ecotourism. The fact remains though that who gets access to nature has a lot to do with where you come from. Speaking from my own experience as a suburbanite, I was sent to an overnight outdoors camp that was only 30 minutes away from my own home. Even closer, I had a local park I could walk down the street to and meet up with friends.

The concrete jungle is only so appealing in song because nature in our urban landscapes is not only better for our carbon footprint but also for our mental health. Now I tie this back together in an effort to understand my own career aspirations. Bringing awareness to the sustainable principles people can adopt in their own environment will also serve as a key component in creating positive environmental impacts. With a staggering rate of people living in cities, community engagement is imperative to exacerbate the need to preserve nature in national parks, community gardens, and local parks.

I hope to plan for a future where kids can live in urban environments and have access to nature. Marginalized communities in inner city places are often met with nature disparity. Just look at the City of Pittsburgh, where Frick Park and Schenley Park are located near Squirrel Hill, while the Hill and Homewood districts have few local parks.

I believe that the Appalachian Collegiate Research Initiative can help me meet this professional goal as I can learn the logistics of local planning. I’m hoping to be a perspective Social Work major, as I believe in a humanistic approach to planning. Community engagement fuels planning initiatives to reflect what the people actually want. While I have a hope of implementing nature into cities, I’m more concerned with pressing issues determined by community members. In my urban research class, I conducted a research study on culture shock among students who came from rural and suburban areas to the city of Pittsburgh. At the time I did not know that this research is directly correlated to the brain drain that the Appalachian region is suffering from. The participants that I had in the study felt that they were coming to the city of Pittsburgh for more opportunities than their rural or suburban communities could give them. The ACRI offers a unique opportunity to get on-the-ground working experience with rural communities. I could further this curiosity to answer of why there’s such a disconnect in the Appalachian region between those who stay and those who leave. I have been a heavy advocator for change on a community level. Especially with a global climate crisis, I believe so highly in educating people locally on why they need to protect the planet. Awareness is one of the biggest creators of change because when you create awareness, people will spread their ideas and make lasting policies.

Neighborhood planning has captured my attention ever since becoming an Urban Studies major. I have a lot of experience working with nonprofits such as Dress for Success Pittsburgh, where outreach to the community has been their main priority. Working with Fayette County to devise a neighborhood action plan that most importantly encapsulates the views of the residents will be a great way to put my Neighborhood Planning class principles into practice. I believe that the best way to learn urban planning is through experience, and the Appalachian region is a great way to study how non-metropolitan areas are trying to incentivize population growth and economic development. I am very excited to collect data on the community and truly research the impacts of the Appalachian Region’s decline.

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