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Students spend fall break in Appalachia for seminar

| Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Sophomore Diane Lee said she had not showered in a week.

Her wrists cramped from spending one morning that week digging a ditch and spreading mulch around an orchard, Lee said, but she made her way across campus eagerly, her anticipation to shower propelling her forward.

“It was a pretty shocking experience,” she said.

Lee, along with about 240 other students, spent fall break in the Appalachia region as part of the Appalachia Seminar, a one-credit-hour course with an immersion experience offered through the Center for Social Concerns (CSC).

Kyle Lantz, assistant program director of Social Concerns Seminars, directs the fall semester programs and said the course introduces students to the complexity of history and current realities in the Appalachian region.

“We look at the current challenges facing the region [and] the vibrancy of the culture utilizing Catholic Social Tradition as a way to approach these communities with humility and openness to learning,” Lantz said in an email. “This seminar is about learning through experience and encounter so the immersion is an essential part of the course. Students take part in direct service as well as conversations and engagement with community members.”

With 20 teams each assigned to a different community in the Appalachia region of the country, Lantz said each immersion program focused on certain themes such as housing repair, education, health, environment, energy, poverty, sustainability or cultural engagement.

According to the CSC’s website, to prepare for the experience, the accepted applicants of the program take a weekly class where they discuss the seminar’s themes and form individual teams leading up to the immersion.

“Our community partners continually tell us that our students come very prepared and they especially enjoy the Notre Dame groups,” Lantz said. “While students do encounter challenging situations at times, they come away ​with very positive things to say about the people they met and a realization that there is need for justice in all corners of our world.”

Of the community partners, Lantz said one of them was new this semester while many were with people and organizations the CSC has worked with for years. Overall, he said the goal is for students to take away a better understanding of the layered complexities of social challenges.

“We hope [students] see the resilience and hospitality in the communities who welcome them,” Lantz said. “We hope they consider ways to become more active citizens moving forward in light of what they learned on immersion and in light of what Catholic Social Tradition calls us toward.”

Along with direct service-work, Lantz said certain programs also engaged students in a variety of activities, including religious services, local music events, community potlucks and high school sporting events.

Lee, who explored food justice with the Grow Ohio Valley program in Wheeling, West Virginia, said she learned not just about food injustice in the area, but also about other issues residents are facing, such as homelessness and those brought about by mining and fracking practices.

“Each day was different, but most days we were doing some sort of work around one of the different farm or garden sites,” Lee said. “Some days we would go weed through the orchard or spread mulch or do other manual labor like that. But we also had a lot of fun activities that they had planned for us, so we got to visit a beekeeper for example and hear from different people in the community.”

According to the Appalachia Seminar website, the immersion maintains that students live “intentionally and simply,” with some sites allowing “fewer showers” or “simpler sleeping arrangements.” Lee said her group was the first in Wheeling to all accomplish the challenge of not showering throughout the entire week.

Lee said her group also participated in the food stamp challenge, in which each member of the group was given the same amount of money — $1.25 — for lunch that each member of a similarly-sized family on food stamps would receive in reality.

“[The immersion] was a very different experience from most people’s fall breaks,” Lee said. “I thought it was going to be a sobering and almost depressing experience, but all the people who were working with Grow Ohio Valley and all those different organizations had such true and pure joy for everything they were doing which was so inspiring to see.”

Sophomore Tim Thompson said he and eight others visited McDowell County, one of the poorest areas in West Virginia, through the Sharing With Appalachian People program. There, he said the group split up and dedicated themselves to home repair for two different houses.

“Before I started the seminar, I thought it was just going to be a service trip and I was just going to be doing service-work with Notre Dame people, but I felt like there was a lot of value going somewhere completely new,” Thompson said. “Now that I’ve seen different areas of the country and people in severe poverty there, it makes me want to be more involved in the community and escape the Notre Dame bubble to see other things.”

Thompson said seeing how complicated one person’s situation could be and the number of struggles a family could go through by themselves was an eye-opening experience for him. He said the program exceeded his expectations despite some of the tedious work, such as redoing an entire kitchen and scraping off old paint, that they conducted.

“Being a Notre Dame student, I always want to analyze situations and try to fix everything and come up with big solutions and change the world, but since I’ve been [to McDowell] I realize that there are so many different problems in the area and that’s just how life is,” Thompson said. “There isn’t a single solution to everything. Everything is more complicated than what it seems. It takes good people doing small things to make a big difference.”

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About Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she served as Editor-in-Chief at The Observer for the 2019-20 term. She is pursuing majors in political science and television with a minor in journalism. // Twitter: @KelliSmithNews

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