Thursday, May 4, 2017

Diversity Served: Ferrum College Students’ Sociology Projects Transition from the Classroom to Community.

By Laurie Adams

Ferrum College will celebrate Commencement Saturday, May 6th, but just as the celebration marks an end and a beginning for graduating seniors, for some students, class projects begun here at Ferrum will also be moving into their own next phases.

Abria Witcher
Students in Dr. Susan Mead’s Sociology 391 Directed Study Course undertook a number of social justice projects in the fall of 2016 and many of those projects will be ongoing, either through the students’ own efforts, or by incorporation into larger non-profit efforts. Here’s a look back – and a look forward at where they started and where they’re going.

Abria Witcher’s project was in trouble. Not just in trouble – her goal of helping with Gretna Elementary School’s backpack program and raising money to assist an orphan in South Sudan was falling apart before her eyes – but that’s when things took a dramatic turn for the better. Witcher had been moved when she learned many students at the school were struggling to get their nutritional needs met. “Their only meal was lunch,” she said. A conflict of timing derailed her original plan, but Witcher pressed forward. Inspired by the 22-year-old Criminal Justice major’s efforts, all the teachers and administrative staff at the school where she interned contributed cash - stepping up to not only meet but surpass her goal by raising $250. This boost allowed Witcher to assist more than one orphan in South Sudan. “My [five] students will be able to attend primary school for a year,” said Witcher.

Witcher plans to continue coordinating with Gretna Elementary School after she graduates to help not only with their backpack program, but by helping students attend summer school. She attended Gretna Elementary and explained, “I was pretty much one of those kids in elementary school so it really spoke to me, wanting to help the students [at Gretna] as well as the orphans attend primary school in South Sudan.”

Witcher and eight classmates, under the guidance of Mead, took on independent projects to help them learn about and get hands-on experience in tackling real-world social issues. The students’ efforts focused primarily on a group of South Sudanese orphans, helping to pay their educational costs and feed them, particularly during times of the year when they aren’t able to get their meals at school. The children who have been helped by Witcher and her classmates range in age from kindergarten through high school graduates. So far the combined efforts of Mead’s students have raised over $1500.

The projects of the other students in Mead’s class varied along with each student’s specialty and the emotional chords that were struck by the plight of the people in South Sudan. Senior Caitlin Johnson, of Rocky Mount, is graduating with her Environmental Studies degree. She plans to continue working with a Ferrum alumnus who is now a middle school agriculture teacher to develop a lesson plan on farming and food deserts, both locally around Virginia and internationally, focusing on South Sudan. Having grown up on a farm, Johnson’s direction for her project was a logical extension of her interest in natural resources and agriculture.

Alexander Soltani
Alexander Soltani’s project was among the most ambitious in the class: he hoped to raise enough money to buy a Toyota Land Cruiser for Bishop Peter Youl of the Tonj Area Diocese of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan. Soltani explained that the vehicle is critically necessary to help the bishop reach far-flung parishioners in South Sudan’s rough terrain. Bishop Yuol coordinates efforts to help the orphans Soltani’s classmates raised funds to assist. A Land Cruiser was acquired for Bishop Yuol and a crowdfunding page generated by Soltani will assist in making future payments on the vehicle.

Soltani, who lives in Mississippi, said he probably would not have attempted this type of service work had he not taken the course. “Before I took this course, I had no intention to work on humanitarian efforts but Dr. Mead helped show me that you can focus on yourself, as well as others. I would like to take up a cause having to do with battered women/abused children in the future, since I hope to become a civil suit lawyer one day. One lesson I learned is sometimes the only way you can help yourself, is to help others, which falls in line with Ferrum's mission ‘Not Self, But Others,’” said Soltani.

Jonathan Dickey
Other projects focused on peace building and community development, including assisting South Sudanese widows. Senior Jonathan Dickey, of Leesburg, Va., says that raising funds to help South Sudanese widows was especially meaningful for him, having grown up with a single mom. He said, “At a young age I saw the struggles that came with that.” Dickey explained he’s focused on the educational component of outreach, noting, “The best outcome would be improved literacy and resources for the widowed mothers of South Sudan.” Like Soltani, Dickey said he came to the directed study course in a roundabout way, initially pursuing it in lieu of finding an internship, but found himself moved to press on with the course’s goals even after an internship was acquired.

Ryan Tesler, a 21-year-old Criminal Justice major from Atlanta, Ga., is raising funds to feed South Sudanese orphans. “I wish more people knew about the good people that reside in South Sudan. The conflicts, violence, and struggles seem to be all you see or hear about when South Sudan is brought up. Bishop Peter and his family is an example of one of the positive sides of South Sudan. He is the one who has brought in all these orphans to help feed and educate. Bishop Peter gave up a great paying job [for] a no salary lifestyle to help these orphans,” said Tesler, whose fundraising effort was among the most successful projects in the class.

After graduation, many of the student projects will be ongoing and the people who benefit will continue to receive assistance through Professor Mead’s non-profit, Diversity Serves. To learn more about Diversity Serves, visit its Facebook page here or to support ongoing student fundraising efforts visit and search for projects under “Diversity Serves.”

No comments:

Post a Comment