by Tara Lucian, USA
Every fall and spring break the Center for Social Concerns hosts seminars throughout Appalachia, a region of the United States that surrounds the Appalachian Mountains and includes counties in 13 different states. This region is one of the poorest in the United States, with some of the highest levels of unemployment and lowest levels of education. The people you meet in Appalachia are usually very different than the people you will meet at Notre Dame; they have different backgrounds, expectations for the future, and perspectives on life. There are some similarities though: they are friendly people who are willing to lend a helping hand and work hard for what they want.
This spring break I went to West Virginia with fifteen other Notre Dame students. The beginning of the drive down was boring. We spent hours driving through flat Indiana and Ohio cornfields. Once we hit the foothills of the Appalachians, the scenery took a turn for the better. There was something eerily beautiful about the tree-covered mountains. It was too early in the season for leaves, but rather than the normal brown or gray that you would expect from leafless trees, they almost had a blue tinge to them. Driving through the mountains with the bright sun and blue sky overhead, and country music blasting on the radio, we made our way deeper into Appalachia.
We spent most of our time working with Park Ranger Eddie Hatcher, readying a state park for summer visitors while Eddie imparted his ageless wisdom on us. When geese fly in a “V,” why is one side longer than the other? Because there are more geese on that side!
When we finished work for the day, we would go hiking in different state parks. Wading through fallen leaves next to trickling streams and babbling brooks, crawling behind waterfalls and under rocky outcrops, we wondered at the beauty of the nature around us. Every walk was an adventure as we often went off trail, never knowing where we would end up next. I have vivid memories of staring down at our car from a 40 foot cliff, wondering how on Earth we were going to get down so we could return in time for dinner.
Of course, there was an educational aspect to the trip as well. There were several cultural events at the Folklife Center: Ranger Rudy taught us about the history of coal mining, Nancy spoke about preserving West Virginia and its culture, and Will treated us to a haunting coal miner’s song.
“It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew/Where danger is double and pleasures are few/Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines/It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.”
Even listening to the radio was an experience. Most strikingly, I heard a commercial about looking for a job after high school, with no mention of college, no suggestion that it might be an option. For many people in Appalachia, it’s not. As someone who was raised assuming that I would go to college, this commercial made a strong impression.
If any undergraduate student is looking for a new experience to fill their fall or spring break, I highly encourage them to take part in an Appalachia Seminar. I had the time of my life on my trip: I worked hard, recharged, met new people, and explored the outdoors. I learned so much about a region of the United States that I had only ever driven through before, and I felt honored and privileged to have done so.