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Service Learning Brings Students to Hills of Kentucky

Date: May 22, 2002
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos by Pam Roy
Archive: General News

A group of 12 UC students took their classroom to Eastern Kentucky for an unforgettable lesson. In fact, it was a lesson that created new pathways for some of the students.

The University College students left Cincinnati May 10 for a two-day trip to Perry County, Kentucky to explore the environmental changes affecting the Appalachian region, and to mentor some of the commonwealth's most neglected and abused children.

photo of UC group

The majority of the students are enrolled in one of UC's Learning Communities initiatives for first year students. By way of the learning communities, the students build relationships with their peers and build confidence in their classroom ability through a yearlong sequence of courses that link the same group of students from one classroom to another. By building connections between peers as well as academics, the initiative is aimed at increasing students' success at achieving a college degree.

This community links a literature class taught by University College Professor Billie Dziech with the science course Biology in a Human Context, taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Pam Roy. In Dziech's classroom, students were reading and discussing the book, Prodigal Summer, by contemporary author Barbara Kingsolver. The storyline is set around southern Appalachia, and the struggle of the human population against that of nature's, namely the hunt for the coyote.

Roy's biology class parallels the English course by exploring how the struggle of humankind against adversary animal predators affects the balance of the ecosystem. "We've been examining this web of life, where everything is connected to something else," explains Roy. "So when something goes extinct, it can affect many species."

The group met with a representative of Kentucky Fish and Wildlife as they explored where elk are being reintroduced in a recovering strip mine. Here, the grass is growing back and the elk are thriving, but it took decades to get here. The students were enthralled by the elk that appeared to pose for Pam Roy's camera.

elk herd

In this region, mining is a job that spans generations - the primary way of making a living in an area that does not draw other industry. Roy says as a result, environmentalists and the mining business work closely together to try to maintain a balance that benefits each other.

"The talk from Charlie, the Fish and Wildlife official, was such an affirmation of what I was teaching in class," says Roy. "Strip mining is not pretty, but this is how people in the area make their money, and it's how we get our electricity. He asked the students that if you take strip mining away, are they willing to sit in the dark when the coal quits coming."

UC student Chris Hansen says he learned it took 30 years for nature to begin to forgive the strip mine. "Strip mining totally desecrates the local environment. There's a real flood control problem there. Everything from caterpillars to wild boars that lived on that mountain is gone. It (the trip) really opened my eyes to conservation, to taking care of nature.

"When the coal is dense and sitting there for pickup, chemicals start seeping that are horrible for the environment, and you could see it, it was a blood-red chemical," he said.

Julie Hollyday Students also did service learning in the region, visiting the Buckhorn Children's Foundation Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency. Dziech explains the children housed at the nonprofit agency have suffered a long history of neglect and abuse and as a result, many of them act out their pain. According to the organization, Buckhorn is the largest agency of its kind in the commonwealth.

Professor Billie Dziech says the UC students joined a group of young boys in a wilderness program. Dziech says the boys were ordered by the state to either choose the two-month wilderness program for first time offenders or go to juvenile hall. The UC students joined the boys at a large climbing tower, a wilderness challenge. The UC students worked with the juveniles to weed and mulch the trails around the tower. UC student Julie Hollyday pulled the prize weed.

UC freshman Nicole Goins was ready to take on the tower. As Roy explains, the tower, the height of three stacked telephone poles, is supposed to promote teamwork and trust. "They have to trust that someone won't drop them."

Strapped to pulleys, Goins, Will Neff and Rachel Schiferl were among the UC students that went the distance, and Dziech says because the juveniles didn't want to be shown up by "girls," the tower got a lot of climbers that day. The climbers would pull themselves over the hurdles to get to the top, but if they pulled away from the structure, they had to depend on their team to properly work the pulleys to get them down. The teamwork built some powerful connections between the students and the young boys.

Nicole Goins

"One of the boys said, 'We're here because we were all in trouble,' and one of my students said, 'We all get in trouble sometimes.' The boys just opened up to our students," said Dziech.

It was a mutual experience. Goins says she's thinking about possibly doing a summer internship in the program. "Overall, the program is aimed at helping them make better decisions and work together with other people. This place is a constant environment for them. Some of these kids have been in 15 or 20 different foster homes," says Goins.

UC student Elizabeth Russell of Walnut Hills says that because of the trip, she's changing her major to social work. "It wasn't anything like I expected. One of the boys we talked to said, 'I'd rather stay here than go home.' I want to work down there if I get the chance.

"At first I didn't want to go," continues Russell, "I didn't think I'd learn anything. As it turns out, it was spectacular."


 
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