For the fifth year, a group of hopeful, rising sophomores in the University Fellows Experience program descended upon the Marion community in Perry County with new ideas to impacting the lives of its residents.
Located in Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt region, Marion’s citizens are united by a classic small-town sense of community but are plagued with a crippling generational poverty.
It’s something Abby Paulson had to see to believe. A rising sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, Paulson was one of many students chosen to participate in the University Fellows Experience’s community service trip to Marion and was intent on making a difference.
She had to stand in front of local Dollar Generals, grocery stores and nutrition centers for six hours most days during the three-week service project, but she ultimately got what she needed: data.
Partnering with Sowing Seeds of Hope, a nonprofit health awareness group based in Marion, Paulson helped collect data from 130 residents concerning their healthcare needs.
In a place where the closest emergency room is 27 miles away in Selma, Alabma, a third of the Perry County residents say there has been a time they needed to see a physician but just couldn’t afford it.
“We found that a good majority of the community has high blood pressure,” Paulson said. “A lot of it’s what we expected to find. Perry County has never had hard data like this, so physicians knew there were a lot of people with high blood pressure, they just didn’t have any numbers to back it up.”
Paulson said most residents agreed there was an unquestionable need for an urgent care center.
“I think a lot of [residents] were really excited about seeing some health care changes. A lot of the community said they saw a need,” she said.
At Francis Marion High School, Derek Carter, a rising sophomore majoring in economics, finance and math, worked with teens hardly younger than himself.
Under Carter’s instruction, the kids experimented with a liquid nitrogen lab, built rockets and raced pine wood derbyars.
“What we were doing was trying to expose the students in the high schools to careers they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise,” he said. “One of the big obstacles is being in Perry County is that they can be isolated from a lot of the major opportunities. They don’t have easy access to any university. Having the resources and the ability to go outside their small community can be very difficult.”
Carter described a sense of fulfillment when college-bound graduating seniors told him they were now considering pursuing a career in engineering.
“I think the experience as a whole, it changed me a lot in many different ways – my views on education … just a lot of things,” Carter said. “I was really impressed with the sense of community in the town down there. Coming from bigger cities, you don’t have the experience like that. I was amazed at all the people coming out to support their graduates. It was very impressive to see that sense of community.”
Like Carter, Khortlan Patterson, a rising sophomore studying Spanish and religious studies, worked with teens on her project. After taking an African-American literature class during her freshman year, Patterson said she realized a great deal of black culture is excluded from the syllabus in traditional courses.
This led her to design a course, “Deconstructing the Myth of Absence,” for eighth grade students at Francis Marion Junior High School.
“I wanted to work with African-American students,” Patterson said. “I wanted to expose them to their history and culture as African-Americans to help them form a sense of identity, reconcile the past and learn some things that they didn’t know before.”
In addition to exposing students to excerpts from classic works like “Copper Sun,” “The Mis-Education of the Negro” and “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Written by Himself,” Patterson incorporated “Slavery by Another Name,” a documentary explaining how Southern black people were institutionally re-enslaved after the Civil War through peonage and prison-labor systems, into her lesson plan.
“We hoped to spark curiosity as to why the education system is like this, why the social structure is the way it is and why African-Americans are in the position they’re in,” Patterson said.
“One student in particular, she didn’t seem like she cared much about much the material,” Patterson said. “I met her cousin later in the week, and he told me the girl would actually go out and tell her family about what she was learning in our class and that he hadn’t ever seen her more interested in a subject.”
Other projects included inventorying the signs on Marion streets, introducing Marion High School sophomores to the college admissions process and leading service projects performed by high school juniors and seniors.
Students also hosted Alabama Art Night to showcase Perry County Nursing Home, featuring a picnic, its newly installed flowerbeds and local student-produced art.