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West Virginia

Foreign Fulbright

Let’s See the Big Picture

August 15, 2019
By Jenny Melo, Fulbright Foreign Student from Colombia

With a learning and service journey to Williamson, West Virginia, I finished my first year as a grad student studying rural sociology & sustainability. I joined a group of 11 international Fulbrighters interested in first-hand community service experience to see how this rural Appalachian community has developed and changed throughout the years.

When I applied to the Fulbright Amizade program, my knowledge of Williamson was limited to information in the news. If you do a quick search, you will find mostly unflattering stories on the opioid and coal mining crises. There are fragments of reality in that, but I knew that was an incomplete story. I am Colombian, and I know from personal experience how the media can disseminate harmful stereotypes and create distorted and incomplete representations of particular communities, and even whole countries. Understanding communities is not monochromatic; it requires a complex and nuanced perspective. My experience in Williamson confirmed that for me, and I am grateful for it.

We spent a full week together in the town, visiting and volunteering at different health, well-being, farming, and education initiatives, and learning of community organizers’ unique perspectives on Williamson. I also spent an afternoon with a mother of three, talking about how the deterioration of the coal mining industry has negatively impacted her family. These conversations expanded my understanding of what systemic community interventions look like, and reinforced my belief in going beyond stereotypes and one-dimensional views in order to develop a multidimensional approach that includes political, economic, environmental and social dynamics.

One of the initiatives that impacted me the most was the Williamson Health and Wellness Center (WHWC), a project led by Dr. Christopher D. “Dino” Beckett. This initiative uses a holistic approach to community development and is a collective response to the crises that Williamson’s citizens face, including the downturn of the coal mining industry, unemployment, and the opioid crisis. Far from a simplistic approach focusing only on access to health care, the WHWC utilizes multidimensional practices, such as access to healthy food, parks and recreational activities, safe community spaces, education, transportation, housing, and economic diversification. With these resources, everyone has an opportunity available for them. The WHWC understands that a 360-degree problem requires a 360-degree solution.

The WHWC and Williamson face several challenges created from national and international dynamics. However, the community is doing its part to thrive despite difficulties, and is reclaiming the right to tell their own story. Williamson Forward is a local news initiative fighting against stereotypes by sharing other, positive sides of community life.

This journey was a genuinely compelling experience for me, a grad student working in rural areas, who believes in the need for community resistance and collective action. I hope to come back to this Appalachian beauty someday.

Enrichment Foreign Fulbright

Fulbright Amizade Participants Travel to Appalachia for Service Learning

May 2, 2018

The Fulbright Foreign Students participating in the 2018 Amizade service-learning seminar representing ten countries.

From April 28 – May 5, 2018, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsored ten Fulbright Foreign Student Program participants to engage in a week-long service-learning program in Williamson, West Virginia led by Amizade Global Service-Learning. The selected Fulbrighters, emerging leaders in a variety of fields, have all demonstrated a commitment to service in their communities. This is the third year that Amizade and Fulbright will work together in West Virginia.

This activity will support the Fulbright Program’s overall mission of increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries by forging meaningful connections between these Fulbrighters and an American community with valuable lessons to share. The focus on service learning highlights the importance of volunteerism in the United States and how local communities in Appalachia are pioneering and engaging in thoughtful work to maintain their cultural framework while also creating a realm of new opportunities.

During their week-long program in Williamson, the group of ten Fulbrighters will participate in community service activities and learn about the town and its history. Williamson is a small, rural coal-mining town in Mingo County that was once home to 10,000 residents and a thriving coal economy in the mid-20th century. However, in recent years, Williamson has experienced a collapsed coal mining industry, a series of devastating floods, and de-population.

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Enrichment Foreign Fulbright

Two Words, Eight Letters: Thank You

June 1, 2017

Fulbright Amizade participants from left to right: Edward Lo, Fulbright U.S. Student to Brazil; David E. Natarén Oyuela, Fulbright Student from Honduras; Mylinh Huang, Fulbright U.S. Student to Vietnam; Kinga Zsofia Horvath, Fulbright Student from Hungary in front of 34:Ate, a Williamson local restaurant.

Editor’s note: In April 2017, twelve Fulbrighters engaged in a week-long service learning project in Williamson, West Virginia, an Appalachian community with valuable lessons to share about sustainability, perseverance and revitalization. This is one in a series of blog posts from the Fulbrighters who visited Williamson. The Fulbrighters were asked to focus on their experiences in Williamson, as well as their engagement with local American community leaders. Visit the Fulbright Amizade 2017 Storify for more details on their journey.

In the small coal-mining town of Williamson, West Virginia lie many gems: the wild and wonderful landscape, the hospitality of the community, and the persistent work of everyday heroes who make miracles there. In Williamson, it does not matter whether you meet an 8-year-old girl participating in an after-school program, a 40-year-old man playing basketball with underserved children, or a 70-year-old beekeeper, you can experience the fact that “giving back to the community” is ageless. During the first week of April 2017, twelve enthusiastic Fulbrighters were able to experience and contribute to the ways in which the residents of Williamson make a difference. We joined local residents in building community gardens, turning rocky mining lands into fertile soil, and teaching the next generation how to give back. This is a thank you note to all of the people who were part of the Fulbright Amizade service-learning project and made an impact on our lives, inspiring us to take our turn to build a better future for the next generation.

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Enrichment Foreign Fulbright U.S. Fulbright

Williamson’s Own Words

May 17, 2017

Editor’s note: In April 2017, twelve Fulbrighters engaged in a week-long service learning project in Williamson, West Virginia, an Appalachian community with valuable lessons to share about sustainability, perseverance, and revitalization. This is the first in a series of blog posts from the Fulbrighters who visited Williamson. The Fulbrighters were asked to focus on their experiences in Williamson, as well as their engagement with local American community leaders. Visit the Fulbright Amizade 2017 Storify for more details on their journey.

There are many stories to be told about Williamson, West Virginia. About Coal Country. About Appalachia. There are stories of drug abuse and diabetes and poverty. Of unemployment and government regulation and presidential elections. Those stories have been told for decades. Those stories continue to be told today by media outlets around the country. They are stories that can be found throughout the country.

Laura Robinson (right), Fulbright U.S. Student alumna (2014-2015, India), talking with Shane from the Williamson Fire Department. Photo by Marcus Cederström.

There are other stories too. Stories of health and wellness and entrepreneurship. Of resilience and revivals and recreation. Of people working to make their communities just a little bit better. Because throughout the country there are groups of engaged citizens identifying problems and finding solutions. These are stories that must be told as well.

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Enrichment U.S. Fulbright

Home Is Where the Heart Is

April 4, 2016

Twelve Fulbright Students from around the world gathered in Williamson, WV, to participate in a service-learning program led by Amizade. As our group was warmly welcomed by the local community, I felt an authentic sense of belonging, where conversations flowed freely and friendships ran deep. What impressed me the most was the people of Williamson. Their sense of community, hospitality, pride and unwavering perseverance to succeed, was not only inspiring but contagious. Due to a series of floods, the coal mine collapse, and lack of employment, Mingo County’s population dwindled from 50,000 to 3,000 residents. Despite their misfortune, residents are uniting as a family to breathe not only life but hope back into their community.

This collective passion is what drives a community to become the best version of itself, and encourages others to join in the revolution. In a way, this devastating crisis has presented a blank canvas for Williamson to rebuild the future they desire. Sustainable Williamson has spearheaded this revolution by taking a holistic approach to challenges faced by this Appalachian community. By reimagining what sustainable agriculture, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and tourism paradigms could be, they are transforming a place back into a home.

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