I have been to Appalachia twice before, having hiked in parks and whitewater rafted, but I have never performed service in the region. Many friends, both from high school and here at Notre Dame, have traveled to Appalachia for service work and immerse themselves in the region’s culture. Their experiences are what inspired me to travel to McDowell County West Virginia this fall.
Even having been to Appalachia, I know very little about the people with whom I will be working. I do know I will experience a substantial educational difference: I will possess a far more advanced traditional educational difference, but I will most likely work with individuals who possess expertise in a variety of fields. This reality was present when I was whitewater rafting, in that our guides never graduated college, but were masters of the river.
I have heard from friends that the Appalachian people are extremely personable and friendly. They do not put up a façade, but remain genuine and down to Earth. At the same time I wonder how they feel about being on the receiving end of so much aid. I would imagine that they could become fairly defensive.
Overall, I know very little about the people of Appalachia, so increasing my understanding of them and their way of life will be my primary goal on the trip. Specifically, I have four questions I want to examine:
- What is the Appalachian people’s relationship to their land? In the preparation classes, I learned about the benefits of both economic and environmental development. Where does the average Appalachian stand on the issue? Is it a contentious issue or is there a general consensus?
- How do Appalachians view us or other Americans? I am curious if biases go two ways, or if there really is that much of a difference.
- What can I learn from the Appalachian way of life? One of the most appealing aspects of my friends’ trips was the simplicity of their lifestyles. While I will inevitably return to my routine after the trip, what can I eliminate from my life to improve it?
- How is rural poverty similar to or different from urban poverty? I have worked extensively with the urban poor, so I am curious how this experience will translate to Appalachia.
Four days is nowhere near long enough to reach comprehensive answers to these questions. However, even simplistic answers will increase my understanding of a different part of the country.