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What does work have to do with love? Quite a bit, according to students in Associate Professor of English Marti Eads’ spring literature course “Vocation in Southern Literature: A Work of Love,” a community learning designate taught as part of the Global Village Curriculum. Community Learning (CL) courses emphasize involvement within the surrounding community—each course requires at least 15 hours in a community setting. Four CL courses are required before graduation.
While classmates journeyed to foreign locales like Fiji, New Zealand and Latin America to experience a new culture, Eads’ class traveled to the hills of nearby West Virginia and met residents young and old of the depressed area that was formerly the prosperous home of a booming coal-mining industry.
Now the sixth poorest region in the country, unemployment in McDowell County persistently doubles the national rate, and county land and natural resources are owned in large part—85 percent—by absentee landlords.
Hoping to show students how work provides meaning and hope, particularly in dire settings, Eads worked with Deanna Durham, campus community-learning coordinator, and the Young People’s Christian Association (YPCA), to craft a trip to coal-mining country that would introduce students to individuals whose work has been an important source of hope within their community.
“It was terrific to see the students make their own connections,” says Eads. “We met local pastors, barbers, union organizers, musicians, coal miners, teachers, homemakers, volunteers—all the fields of work written about in our course reading—and my students came away with real-life examples of how vocation forms from love and provides hope, even when the work isn’t glamorous or profitable.”
“As people told us about their lives,” says Eads, “the particular injustices in their community became evident—racism, drug abuse, poverty. So, too, did their creative efforts to overcome those injustices.”
Racism in particular seemed a likely issue to students Korey Dugan, Rachel Schrock and Travis Kisamore (C 05) when they interviewed Judge Booker T. Stephens, an African-American who, as a youth attending a segregated high school, swept the floors of the courthouse he now presides over.
“There was discrimination here,” agreed Booker, “but not like it was in Alabama back in the 1930s and 40s [where my parents grew up]. My dad felt he could give his children a better life here as a coal miner. That’s what I really appreciate about this place—the honesty, integrity and the work ethic of these people. I love that.”
Korey Dugan, a junior originally from Philadelphia, Pa., was struck by the welcoming nature of everyone she met.
“As an ethnic student, I was really nervous about the environment,” she says. “I’d never been to West Virginia, and had only heard intimidating tales of ‘hollers’ and heavy accents, but it was a different story. The whole town was friendly and made me feel at home. The people we met opened up with incredible stories, and I enjoyed their memories as much as they did. They are strong-minded, -hearted, and -willed people, proud of their heritage. It was inspiring.”
Rebekah Good, a senior majoring in both nursing and culture, religion and mission, reacted strongly to the strength
of culture compared to the scarcity of wealth and resources. “I didn’t really know what to expect. The trip opened my eyes to poverty here in the United States, and I learned a new meaning of the word ‘hospitality.’ The people were so welcoming, and their culture of community and music really struck me. They live with what seems like so little and yet they are rich in so many ways. I realize I’ve been blessed with more opportunities than other people my age, having spent part of my life in Africa, but this trip reinforced that it doesn’t mean others don’t have just as much to offer through their own experiences.”
Derrick Charles, student and co-leader of the YPCA spring break service trip to the area, made a connection with a local pastor on the first day of his stay that set the tone for the remainder of the visit.
“ Appalachia really is a unique world. We listened to stories and songs from so many wonderful people and learned about their struggles, from years of hard work in the coal mines, to the departure of the mining companies, and finally, the trouble motivating young people to desire education and invest in the community.”
“I really found out that bluegrass music isn’t just music, but an expression of who they are and a vehicle for storytelling,” says the senior Biblical Studies major. “It’s amazing to take in.”
Sophomore psychology major Kelly Cullers waded through preconceptions to witness the real story of life in the hills.
“I knew we would meet interesting characters—my family is from northern West Virginia—so I was expecting charming country folk and fantastic stories but I was surprised by the poverty,” she says. “I’ve seen it before, but never to this extent. It almost seemed like a third-world country, with dilapidated houses and mud everywhere. The people were worn…yes…but never without a smile or a kind word.”
Eads calls the course a success. Indeed, when asked if they would recommend the experience to fellow students, each student answered, “Definitely!”
“I was honored to be the students’ companion—they were so impressive,” says Eads. “EMU students have practical skills honed from years of mission and service work as well as an openness of mind and instant respect for other cultures."
"They made an immediate impact, helping out with carpentry, pulling out their instruments to pick bluegrass with an old pro, and dancing to the country sounds of local musicians. They were in the thick of things.”
—Marcy Gineris, Marketing Services