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Giving Back to Appalachia

For the past two decades, students in UT’s sustainable communities course have gone into the heart of Tennessee’s Appalachian communities to serve.

March 18, 2021

Each fall semester, Professor Tim Ezzell (’88, ’96, ’02) and his class choose a community project, which may range from building signage for a state park to developing a plan for revitalizing tourism in an aging downtown area. Their projects have taken them to cities and towns across Pickett, Polk, Johnson, Morgan, Fentress, Cocke, and other Tennessee counties.

When Alaina Wood (’17) took Ezzell’s class while working on her bachelor’s degree in geography and sustainability, her class traveled to Mountain City to create maps and use virtual reality technology to improve access to Doe Mountain Recreation Area.

“It was exciting to do a college project with a community that I knew,” says Wood, who grew up in nearby Johnson City.

Participating in Ezzell’s class opened her eyes to the need only miles from her home.

“You don’t see a lot of universities running these types of programs for community development in the region,” says James Talley, a City Council member and former mayor of Ducktown in Polk County.

In 2014, students successfully crowdfunded a 3D printer for the Copper Basin Learning Center in Polk County as part of a project evaluating how crowdfunding could be used to support rural Appalachian communities.

“When a lot of people picture rural communities, they think there’s nothing there,” says Maria Urias, a political science major from Lenoir City, Tennessee. “That’s definitely not true. It just looks different.”

A student in Ezzell's class works at her desk
A student in Ezzell’s Sustainable Communities class works at her desk

For their project this past fall, Urias and her class worked with Loretto, a city of 1,800 residents in rural Lawrence County, where they focused on community and public health measures that could benefit the area in the event of a crisis like a pandemic. Students collected wastewater samples to test for COVID-19 at UT, explored installing a telehealth kiosk for residents to get basic services without putting themselves at risk of illness, and used grant money from the Appalachian Regional Commission to create an outdoor study space beside the public library. They presented their project to the ARC as part of a virtual symposium in 2020.

In addition to assisting the communities, the passion and energy Ezzell and community partners show for the region benefit students.

“Growing up so close to UT, there was never a question in my mind whether I’d come here,” says Urias, whose family moved to Tennessee from Brazil when she a was a girl. “Of course, you have this love for Tennessee football. But there’s also something about this Torchbearer’s Creed. There’s a home here for everyone.”

Ezzell, a native of East Ridge, Tennessee, and three-time UT graduate, didn’t expect so much of his career to be defined by service to the region he called home. Like many at UT, he saw a need and chose to meet it.

Twenty years later, his course continues showing UT’s commitment to Appalachia and rural communities across Tennessee.

“Going out and seeing these places, meeting the people, gives students an experience they just can’t capture reading a book in a classroom,” Ezzell says. “I can’t teach you how to make a connection. I can’t teach you to read a room. But I can put you in a place where you can use your passion and your ideas to make a real difference in the lives of real people.”

Produced by the Office of Communications and Marketing

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