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Social work majors learn about Appalachian culture during immersion experience

January 19, 2012
Immersion
Social work majors explored the culture of the southern Appalachian region during an immersion program. They paid particular attention to social programs and social activism in the area. Photo by: Vanda Galen.
EAU CLAIRE — When Jessica Aguilar, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior social work major from Eau Claire, returned from an Appalachian immersion trip to eastern Kentucky, she was filled with excitement and proud of the opportunities she has been provided as a social work major.

For 11 days Aguilar immersed herself in the Appalachian culture, paying close attention to social programs and social activism in the area.

"These experiences have put things into perspective and have definitely made me realize why I want to be a social worker," said Aguilar. "I had the opportunity to bond and create relationships with people, and these are the types of memories and experiences that no one will be ever be able to take away from me."

Aguilar is one of 10 students who went on the immersion experience in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. Dr. Vanda Galen, professor and chair of the social work department, along with clinical instructor Sarah Niles led the excursion, partially funded through the Blugold Commitment.

The immersion focused on the social work history of the area, the Appalachian culture and the conflicts arising in an economy based on extraction of coal. Students stayed in the coal company towns of Benham and Lynch, where they learned about community activism to limit mountaintop removal to extract coal. It was there they also met the "Petticoat Mafia," a group of older women who took over city government to improve community services.

Since returning to UW-Eau Claire, the students worked on a fundraiser for Appalshop, a nonprofit arts and education center in Whitesburg, Ky. Through education and training programs, Appalshop raises local awareness to the community and celebrates cultural diversity as a positive social value.

Appalshop, which does documentation and outreach through media production, is transforming old film into updated media, Aguilar said.

"We wanted to say thank you by helping them raise money for a $20,000 project," Aguilar said. "We decided to have two bake and chili sales in November and we raised $335. Dr. Galen matched our sales, so we were able to donate $670 to Appalshop."

Students also put together a quilt representing their experiences in eastern Kentucky. Each student contributed squares toward the quilt, which is displayed in the social work department office in the Human Sciences and Services Building on lower campus.

This immersion experience received financial support from UW-Eau Claire's Blugold Commitment. In 2010 the Student Senate and the UW System Board of Regents supported increasing the amount of differential tuition UW-Eau Claire students pay, with the new dollars going to fund Blugold Commitment projects that enhance student learning.

For more information about the immersion project, contact Dr. Vanda Galen at 715-836-5366 or galenv@uwec.edu.

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JT/JB/DW

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