On a chilly day in early April, a group of Bucknell University students went door-to-door to interview business owners and residents in Mount Carmel, Pa., located in the rolling hills about 35 miles southeast of campus. Once a center of the coal-mining boom, its population has dwindled since 1950, with nearly a fifth of its residents now living below the poverty line.
The students, members of Professor Eric Martin's Managing for Sustainability class (MSUS 400), asked the locals dozens of questions about their perceptions of the borough's assets and needs: What are your favorite things about Mount Carmel? What makes you stay? How have things here changed?
"People in this community care deeply about the area and its opportunities for children and want to do whatever is possible to see to its renewal," said Anthony Marcozzi '16. "We hope that our efforts will map out future actions for Mount Carmel that will create progress on multiple levels."
The MSUS 400 field experience is just one of several local projects involving Bucknell students and faculty since the opening of Bucknell's Coal Region Field Station in April 2015. Based out of a former convent, the Mother Maria Kaupas Center in Mount Carmel, the field station has built upon several long-standing faculty ties to the area and served as the home base for additional independent research, course field work and volunteer efforts. Father Martin Moran, Bucknell's former Catholic chaplain and current pastor of Divine Redeemer Church in Mount Carmel, helped establish the University's partnership with the center.
Martin plans to bring future classes back to the borough, where they will collaborate with local leaders to use the results of these surveys to help develop and implement actionable plans to revive the community.
"The students and I felt overwhelmed at times about the really significant problems that exist in the area, but we were also energized after speaking with the community to learn about the many small steps that have been taken and the many more that could be taken to chip away at these seemingly insurmountable obstacles," he said.
Local resident Mercedes Guilford echoed Martin's optimism.
"It's great to see people coming here that are being positive and doing something that we as a community can hopefully use to help improve and revitalize Mount Carmel," said Guilford, who along with Ryan Hossann co-owns Khromatic Productions, a local marketing agency that is helping some of the borough's small businesses appeal to a younger demographic and others outside of the region, which they hope will help revitalize the downtown.
Beyond the School of Management, faculty and students from geography, sociology & anthropology, environmental studies and comparative humanities have either initiated independent research or done class projects in the coal region.
One such project involved former visiting professor Nick Kupensky '07, comparative humanities, and Erin Frey '17, who unearthed the works of a poet-priest in Mahanoy City, which helped illuminate that area's Slavic and literary past. Frey has continued her work with Professor Katherine Faull, German Studies and comparative humanities.
Another ongoing project features Professor Carl Milofsky, sociology & anthropology, his Video Ethnography classes (SOCI 206) and their work on the Shamokin fire history "museum," which is a collection of newspaper clippings, photographs, fire reports and VHS tapes stored in a building near a Shamokin fire station. Last spring, Milofsky's class produced a video about the late John Smith, a Shamokin firefighter who spent several years compiling these materials. His spring 2016 class produced a new video that focuses on the current volunteer firefighters.
Milofsky plans to dig even deeper into the rich history encased within these archives, which reflect not only the historic and cultural importance of volunteer firefighting companies in the area, but also are a window into the region's broader sociological past. This summer, he'll work with two students to digitize the collection and create a website for the public.
"I've realized there are a lot of interesting stories within Shamokin's fire history," said Milofsky, who co-directs the field station along with Professor Ben Marsh, geography and environmental studies. "If you chase down the stories, you come to understand the community, so our goal is to learn more about Shamokin, using fire history as the vehicle for doing so."
Understanding the community is what Professor Jen Silva, sociology & anthropology, hopes to do through her latest project, which examines how families and individuals cope with economic and community decline, and subsequent community revival. Part of what attracted Silva to Bucknell was its proximity to the coal region, a prime location to continue the kind of research that led to her first book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Last summer, she worked with Jesse Scheimreif '16 and Caroline Hompe '17 to conduct numerous interviews with coal region residents. She will be continuing similar interviews in the area for the next nine months, with a goal of publishing a second book detailing her findings.
"The coal region tells a very American story in that it was once the center of industrial power in the 19th century with a strong, united working class and community solidarity, followed by economic decline more recently and this question of what do we do now to rebuild these communities," said Silva. "All of the socioeconomic issues that affect us as a nation are happening in this region."
In addition to independent research and class projects, several Bucknell student groups have performed community service in Mount Carmel. For example, in January, the Bucknell men's and women's swimming & diving teams conducted a free swimming clinic at Mount Carmel Area High School. Student-athletes also organized a can drive for the Kaupas Center pantry in which every varsity team member — approximately 750 — donated at least one can to the effort. The Catholic Campus Ministry recently brought students to the area to volunteer at the Mount Carmel public library.
Students interested in conducting independent research in the coal region should contact their respective academic departments or Shaunna Barnhart, director of the Place Studies Program in the Bucknell Center for Sustainability & the Environment, for more information on the field station. Barnhart helps manage the field station, promotes its use and community partnerships, assists in research project development, and also manages the associated coal region working group, which includes 18 academic and non-academic units from across campus.
"All of this activity in the region has ramped up very quickly," she said. "There is a lot happening, and likely even more that is yet to happen. We already have seven students scheduled to do research in the coal region this summer."
Martin said he looks forward to the possibilities ahead.
"Showing initiative and taking those smaller steps can have tremendous impact over time," he said. "For our students to play any role in that is fantastic. Mount Carmel has many assets that can be tapped and built upon. I am very optimistic about its future."