Semester of Service: Embracing Uncertainty through Service Learning at West Virginia University

By Julia Daisy Fraustino, West Virginia University

Chances are that if you’re reading this, you work at an institution of higher education that holds some form of service to others as part of its identity. Give me a virtual nod if that’s the case?

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I can feel you nodding from all the way over here in wild, wonderful West Virginia. And I’m not surprised. Thousands of American universities have service-focused missions. There is at least one major land-grant institution in each state, all holding at their core the goal to educate and give back to their home state’s people. Numerous community colleges seek similar ends. Add on the myriad faith-based institutions founded in values inextricably connected to service and public good, and you can see where I’m heading here.

On top of that, I know our PRD’s #prprofs are public intellectuals with hearts as big as their brains. Even if you weren’t at a school with a service-based mission component, my bet is that you personally embrace the value of service and civic engagement through relationship building, and your classrooms reflect that in some way.

The LEAP Challenge from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) treats education in ways that could serve such missions and goals. It encourages students at all stages to engage a problem from more than one analytic perspective. As AACU President Shneider explained in a post on the organization’s site, “college students need to prepare to contribute in a world marked by open or unscripted problems—problems where the right answer is far from known and where solutions are necessarily created under conditions of uncertainty.” She continued to note that these students “are entering a world of extraordinary complexity and uncertainty. The solutions they create will hold lasting consequence for our shared future.”

Leaping into the Complexity of Our Shared Future

At West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, strategic communications and public relations faculty leap into uncertainty to help students learn to build and manage relationships in real communities in a world marked by the unscripted problems and solutions Schneider speaks of.

West Virginia is a breathtaking state deserving its “almost heaven” moniker. Yet it is also a state with growing food deserts and the highest adult obesity rate in the country, with the second-highest level of lost lives and property from extreme flooding in recent months, has many struggling rust-belt communities declining with loss of coal and related industry, experiences a widening digital divide, and has low recycling and high waste along with pollution and water contamination concerns—to name just a few of the issues our students have identified through service-learning secondary and primary research.

In celebration of PRD’s semester of service initiative, we’d like to share with you a few of the areas our faculty-student teams are passionately working on to grow students’ real-world skills and portfolios through coursework while championing our land-grant mission and commitment to the public interest. We welcome your comments and look forward to seeing what you’re all up to in this realm throughout the semester as well.

Community Branding

Last year, Dr. Rita Colistra served as the project director for the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation-funded Community Branding Initiative. Along with faculty leaders Dr. Julia Daisy Fraustino and Dr. Geah Pressgrove, Rita launched BrandJRNY, a service-learning capstone course project aimed at revitalizing West Virginia communities through integrated branding efforts in three struggling communities. The BrandJRNY website details various experiences, work, and resources related to place-based branding in those service-learning efforts.

At the end of that preliminary effort, Rita decided that BrandJRNY was missing a research arm to provide long-term tracking of and overall legitimacy to the branding work being executed in the three pilot (and future) communities. That’s the focus for Rita’s capstone course this spring.

Distinct from BrandJRNY, Appalachian Insights is a research collaborative that brings together WVU-affiliated experts from various disciplines who conduct research and create projects with a specific focus on West Virginia and the greater Appalachian region. Guided by an advisory board of both professional and faculty experts, Dr. Colistra’s strategic communications capstone students are conducting research and creating the brand and plan to launch this innovative startup that will serve as a comprehensive knowledge base for Appalachia-related research occurring at the University.

Natural Disaster Storytelling

During this semester of service, Dr. Geah Pressgrove is leading an innovative course alongside Harrison/Omnicom Innovator-in-Residence Ben Roffee, who is the digital director at RYOT, an immersive storytelling affiliate of The Huffington Post. Their students are using virtual reality and 360° video storytelling to create empathy and inspire action for flood recovery still underway months after devastating natural disasters in Southern West Virginia. For example, Geah’s and Ben’s student teams are working with partners to tell the stories of:

Clay County High School – Students in all grades of the high school are learning business acumen, website development, and vocational skills as they build a tiny home. When completed, the home will be donated to a family that lost theirs in the flood.

Herbert Hoover High School – The flood led to this school’s closing. Now high school students take half-day classes in the afternoon at the middle school. Two teachers are trying to provide opportunities to students with coding and engineering. These teachers personally purchased supplies for the classes before the flood, but all the supplies were lost.

Rainelle Elementary – The Agriculture Learning Center is a high tunnel where elementary students, teachers, local veterans, and Master Gardeners work together to grow produce for the community, which is located in a food dessert. In addition to helping those who may have lost their homes and transportation in the flood, students are learning to see rain positively again as it waters their plants, and they are inspired by growth at a time when sadness surrounds their community.

NGO Communication through International Agency Work

Professor Chuck Harman’s capstone course is working with a client of Porter Novelli’s London office. The award-winning agency’s founders realized more than 40 years ago that “classic marketing disciplines could be reapplied to public relations communications to make a positive social impact on the world,” according to the Porter Novelli website.

The account that Chuck’s team is working with is Destination Florida, a Manchester (UK) NGO that provides an international trip of a lifetime to Orlando theme parks for 75 seriously ill children every two years. A team of doctors and nurses accompany the children, giving parents a well-deserved weeklong respite.

The class will spend time in Manchester and London working with the client and the agency.

Local Non-profit Advocacy   

Dr. Elizabeth Oppe is partnering with a diverse set of local organizations that is impressive in both size and scope for this Spring Semester of Service. Students in her classes are working with the organizations listed below to provide public relations, advertising, or other strategic communication strategy and deliverables. Through the service-learning approach, students become advocates for their non-profit agencies by planning and organizing fundraising events and promotional materials.

Strategic Writing Course Partners

American Red Cross

Falling Run Trail

Health, Science and Technology Academy

In Touch and Concerned

Literacy Volunteers of Monongahela and Preston County

Mountaineer Boys and Girls Club

Operation Welcome Home

Unity Manor

WVU Office of Student Conduct

Strategic Communication Campaigns (Capstone) Course Partners

Mason Dixon Historical Park

Once A Mountaineer, Always A Mountaineer Day of Play

As Elizabeth puts it, “Let’s make sure the strategic communication and public relations learning outcomes and objectives taught in the classroom are aligned and on track with current industry trends, practices and philosophies.”

Social and Entrepreneurial Action

Dr. Julia Daisy Fraustino’s senior capstone course students are the inaugural Enactus West Virginia University team. They are working to develop sustainable, healthy livelihoods in West Virginia communities through social and entrepreneurial action. Enactus is a global community of student, academic, business, and community leaders who are committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world.

This semester, with guidance from industry experts and a growing Business Advisory Board, four Enactus WVU campaign teams are working on:

Green is the New Blue & Gold—This team is partnering with the WVU Office of Sustainability to decrease waste and increase recycling education and behaviors on campus through educational signage on indoor recycling cans and outdoor experiential marketing efforts.

Create Your (Wellbeing) Adventure—Partnering with myriad local healthy living providers and educators, this team is working create the first regional Earth Day Celebration Street Fair spanning the downtown Grafton Main Street and extending to wellness activities at Tygart Lake State Park.

Branding & Introducing Buffalo Flats—This team is branding, promoting, and launching the grand opening of Buffalo Flats Arts Association, a new non-profit start-up with a mission to make creative expression in its many forms accessible to all.

The Shack Neighborhood House + WVU Mentorship Program—Recognizing a lack of big-brother/big-sister-type mentorship programs in Northern West Virginia as well as a high volume of low-income families, this team is partnering with The Shack to create a sustainable volunteer service and internship program that unites WVU students in various disciplines with area youth.

Leaping into (Un)Certainty

While we all start with rigorous plans and behind-the-scenes setup for the kinds of teaching endeavors outlined above, the uncertainty inherent in numerous facets of the service-learning experience might be the only certain part. Ok, well, maybe that and extreme exhaustion. Kidding! (kind of)

Although students might start the semester excited and overwhelmed (or even terrified), throughout the semester, they reap benefits in learning to wade strategically through uncertainty and complexity to ultimately produce positive outcomes for clients, issues, and communities they care about. They grow not only their real-world knowledge, skills, networks, and portfolios, but oftentimes they also leave with a new commitment to community and civic engagement. And what #prprof wouldn’t want that?

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