Public Relations  >  News Center  >  News Releases  >  May 2016  >  May 9, 2016  >  Student experience in West Virginia explores roots of economic, ecological degradation
Student experience in West Virginia explores roots of economic, ecological degradation

Creighton students experience an educational opportunity in West Virginia that's part service learning, part cultural critique, part history lesson.Describing her difficulty in getting to West Virginia’s coalmining country and the poverty, ecological degradation and sometimes shocking corporate disregard for human life and dignity she found there, the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote a simple but astonishing line in her 1938 long poem, The Book of the Dead: “These roads will take you into your own country.”

Years later, Creighton University students are taking those same roads to face what is largely the same climate of systematic ruin of the places where coal is still extracted — now by the supremely deleterious processes of strip mining and mountaintop removal — and the marginalizing effect of that effort upon the people still living and working amidst the mines.

“People are amazed that this happens, that a place like this exists in the United States,” said Ryan Wishart, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology who will be co-leading a group of nine Creighton students on a three-week senior perspective course through West Virginia coal country beginning May 14. “There are parallels in the developing world. For example, when a community delegation from the coalfields of Colombia traveled to nearby central Appalachian Kentucky, they were shocked at the way mining is practiced in the region — that something like that could take place in the U.S.”

The West Virginia course is one of a bevy of student experiences available under the aegis of Creighton’s Faculty-Led Programs Abroad, courses which seek to deepen student awareness and appreciation for the richness of culture and the problems faced by people in the wider world. This year, students are heading to Haiti, Peru, Tanzania, China, and the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, among other destinations.

Alice Smith, who will join Wishart on the trip and who launched the West Virginia course nearly a decade ago, said some of the difficulties faced in those regions can also be witnessed right in our own American backyard.

“What I love to see in students is how they begin to think about where these inequalities come from,” said Smith, an academic instructional designer in the School of Medicine who first visited West Virginia on a service vacation with her family 16 years ago. “When we complete the experience and the students return home to the routine that had been normal, so much no longer fits. They are aware of how each decision they make impacts other people as well as the environment. The students also write a paper, giving them an opportunity to think about how they are going to pull this experience into the rest of their lives and match it to the career they’re pursuing.”

Students in the course, studying an array of disciplines from education to business, pre-med to anthropology, spend a week on service projects with students from other colleges around the nation. After the other students leave, the Creighton students visit places that provide perspective and insight into the systemic causes of the poverty in this area. They visit a mountaintop removal site, see the environmental catastrophe in the area and witness the human costs in the form of difficulty accessing health care and other social services.

They work in classrooms at a local school, seeing firsthand the challenges faced by the teachers, with limited resources and children coming from impoverished families. They visit Wellspring, an organization that provides a myriad of assistance from low-income housing to tutoring for a GED. And they tour a clinic providing health care for low- or no income patients, and hear of the difficulties faced by the people being served and the challenges for those that are serving.

The students live as the people of the region live — simply and in some heightened sense of community and the common needs of all humanity. And, as social scientists and artists going back several generations have done, they read about and ponder the system that has brought the region to its knees and has created massive, cyclical want.

“Hillary Clinton had said we’re going to put a lot of coal companies out of business with environmental policy,” Wishart said. “But to not acknowledge that the coal from this region drove the industrialization of the U.S., contributed to the economic growth and prosperity of the entire nation and we’ve paid for it with the miners’ bodies and the degradation of the environment is troubling. The pope’s encyclical on the environment talks about ‘environmental debt’ in the underdeveloped parts of the world. That’s a debt that has to be paid as we think about dealing with ecological crisis in a way that’s also socially just. We have to stop burning coal, immediately, to avoid other grave injustices of climate change but we also have an obligation to be sure these communities have a viable alternative. Too often, that’s been too little, too late.”

Finding such a situation in the U.S., where growth seems exponential and where poverty is perceived as extant only in urban areas and among minority populations, a whole new world is opened to the students, Smith said. She hopes the course, while educational, also affirms and nurtures the empathy and compassion the students have already shown, so they can live out the experience in whichever field, and in whatever region they land.

“I think it is pivotal to provide people with an experience of solidarity with humans,” Smith said. “Some people are denied dignity, and that affects that solidarity. When you develop relationships with people who don’t feel they have that sense of dignity, there is a sense of camaraderie and solidarity that gives both people dignity and fulfillment.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.