Absorbing Appalachia

In this immersion trip through the Ignatian Center, students take on the complex cultural, environmental, and socioeconomic issues of Appalachia.

Absorbing Appalachia
Sunset over Kingdom Come State Park in southeast Kentucky in the heart of Appalachia. Photo by Don Sniegowski via Flickr.

Stretching from the southern tip of New York state to the tippy-tops of Georgia and Alabama are over 2,000 miles of mountain range in a region known as Appalachia. These mountains are covered by lush green forest while underfoot is a tangle of coal mines. Communities here have a complex cultural history that runs as deep as the coal veins in their mines, and ongoing environmental and economic tensions cloud their future.

Over spring break this year, March 21-25, a group of Santa Clara students are learning about those tensions through the Ignatian Center’s immersion program in partnership with the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling University in West Virginia. Cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the Appalachia immersion has been well-attended since it was established in 2010. Over the week, they meet with community-based organizations to witness their day-to-day experiences working towards energy sustainability and ecological justice. Students are expected to learn about the consequences involved with fracking, mountaintop removal, mining, and how the environment being impacted in one area can cause reverberations far away.

Helping coordinate the program are two seniors, Lorena Delgado-Márquez ’22 and Maryam Khatoon ’22. As sociology majors, the pair felt the program was an opportunity to make up time and experiences lost to the pandemic. Both Delgado-Márquez and Khatoon had been affiliated with the Ignatian center before, but hadn’t been able to go on any immersions in person before now due to the pandemic.

They say the immersion is a perfect way of introducing a social justice topic that often gets overlooked. “Even if we’re not being directly affected by different issues, especially like in Appalachia [where there’s] fracking, it does affect us in indirect ways through environmental changes,” Delgado-Márquez says. “I think it’s important just to kind of build this awareness in what’s going on.”

As coordinators, Khatoon and Delgado-Márquez will accompany the immersion group and lead guiding reflections at the end of each day. Leading up to the trip, the two held meetings once per week to foster a sense of community among participants. Through these exercises and practice reflections, the goal is for students to find solidarity and create connections on a deeper level as they meet people from a culture and region very different than their own.

Arturo Pacheco and Zach Greenfield stand in front of a garden shed they cleaned and prepped at Wheeling University community garden.
Arturo Pacheco ’25 and Zach Greenfield ’24 stand in front of a garden shed they cleaned and prepped at Wheeling University community garden. Photo provided by Maria Autrey.
SCU immersion group at Wheeling University, Spring Break 2022
The SCU immersion group at work at Wheeling University with their host, Fr. Rich, director of the Appalachian Institute, prepping the university’s garden which produces fresh produce that’s donated to local community kitchens. Photo provided by Maria Autrey.

This creation of connections and embodying the call to caring for a common home is what Maria Autrey, the Ignatian Center’s program director of immersions, believes to be most important.

“We don’t have to be the protagonist, sometimes we have to be a witness, sometimes we have to be just another person joining, we don’t have to be the center of those movements,” Autrey says. “So I hope students can get the sense of solidarity with people that might be from a different context, who in their day-to-day life they might not encounter their struggle or their fight or the amazing work [that] they’re doing.”

This mirrors the goal of all Ignatian Center immersions: to help students get to know themselves and understand their own journeys, learn to accompany others on their separate paths, and ultimately appreciate their personal connection to the issue being studied. In Appalachia, for example, it’s sustainability and environmental awareness. At the U.S. border, it’s about immigrant rights.

Students in every immersion trip are given a loose framework of what issues they’ll cover, who they’ll talk to, which places they might visit. But ultimately, they are asked to take ownership of their experiences. Autrey has yet to meet a student who hasn’t said their life wasn changed by an immersion. “I think immersions are an amazing opportunity that not everybody has,” Autrey says. “To take a pause in their life, with such intentionality and also, to see ourselves as part of something bigger. So both in the sense of [something] personal, but also to understand that the University is connected with so many other institutions, so many other people, so many other organizations all around the world that are doing amazing work.”

For Khatoon, Appalachia holds a lot of mystery. “It’s not something we really learn about, or not something I’ve learned about in school, especially growing up in the Bay Area,” she says. “I feel like it feels so far removed, but then maybe [it can help with] realizing that we’re all interconnected with the world.”

And it’s not that students need to travel to some far off locale for the realization that we need to take care of the environment to sink in. As Delgado-Márquez says, it’s about learning to form a community wherever you go, and learning to care for that community wherever you are. “We want to prepare students to build community, to get touch in with our spirituality, hone in with the social justice aspects of the immersion,” she says, and “and then also [to] live simply or in simplicity.”

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