Sunlight streams into Kelly Hamshaw’s study in Bristol, Vermont, illuminating the overflowing bookshelves behind her. She is waiting for students to log into her virtual class, CDAE 271: Local Community Initiatives. The University of Vermont Senior Lecturer has logged in fifteen minutes early – intentionally. She does this every class to replicate “pre-class chats” in a remote environment.
The extra time Kelly dedicates to her students during remote learning is just one example of the effort CDAE professors have put into community building during this pandemic, both within and beyond the virtual classroom. A look at Kelly’s class and another service-learning based Public Communication course provides a window into how the department has pivoted to continue effective, hands-on learning during these challenging times.
Kelly’s class is a capstone course for juniors and seniors. Ordinarily, students would complete in-person projects to support the Bristol branch of Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD). During the pandemic, however, it became impossible to safely complete in-person projects, so the course had to be entirely reworked. As Kelly reformatted the course, she met the needs of both students and community stakeholders by asking a question foundational to CDAE: “What would be useful?”
Kelly’s task was to identify ways to assist Vermont communities remotely. For Kelly, supporting students was just as important as supporting stakeholders, as “students [in a CDAE capstone course] should be getting to apply what they’ve learned in their three, four years in the department to an actual project that will have tangible impacts in communities.”
In communication with Gary Holloway, the Downtown Program Manager of the ACCD, Kelly learned the ACCD was “trying to collect stories across all the downtowns,” throughout the state of Vermont to advocate for community needs and resources within the state legislature, and to capture unique individual and community responses to the pandemic. Although students are just beginning their interviews, there are already abounding in examples of community members rallying to support each other. For example, Everyone Eats, a grant-funded community program, has provided restaurants funding to pay employees and provide free meals to community members. Bristol, Vergennes, and Middlebury have created a bi-local, grant-funded gift card campaign to encourage residents to shop locally. For more details about the program, check out https://www.addisoncounty.com/10-day/35k-giveaway.
Here, Kelly created a solution to support both parties: students could remotely interview community stakeholders – i.e. business owners, volunteers, ACCD members, etc. – to capture their experiences. The ACCD will then use those interviews to celebrate and advocate for those communities.
This “spirit of collaboration,” as Kelly explained, “that our downtowns are stronger when folks are talking to each other and working together,” is not unique to this project. Rather, it can be seen throughout CDAE, among faculty and students.
Sara Domas, a UVM senior majoring in Public Communication in CDAE, shares her experience collaborating with a community partner in Burlington for CDAE 224: Public Communication Capstone, a class taught this semester by CDAE Lecturer Ben Dangl.
Sara and her student group members were paired with the Media Factory, a Burlington-based organization that provides the training, tools, and platform for community members to share their stories through film, podcasts, and radio. Her capstone group’s initial task was to promote an in-person premiere of a VT crowd-sourced remake of the movie “Cast Away.” However, with the Media Factory shifting their plans to adapt to the pandemic, Sara says, “we weren’t really sure how to organize.”
As Sara’s team worked to collaborate with the Media Factory, they realized it is “really important to communicate clearly and consistently,” to foster a collaborative and supportive relationship with community partners. Sara says, “if we had just, like, stopped asking questions at that point, we wouldn’t have as good a relationship with them as we do now.”
Thanks to the capstone team’s communication efforts, their collaboration with the Media Factory culminated in an online premiere of “Cast Away,” complete with an at-home viewing guide and a bingo board.
The lesson Sara’s team learned – how essential communication is in identifying and meeting a community need – Sara says, “applies to everything in life.”
It certainly applies to life at UVM during COVID-19. The University’s response to the pandemic reflects a guiding question in CDAE: “What would be useful?” Aside from the clear need for physical health screenings, guidance, and support, the University’s messaging has responded to an additional need: a sense of community.
Perhaps the most well-known message across campus (as well as in downtown Burlington) is signage reading “stay one dairy cow apart.” The unique message not only brings humor to a difficult situation, but it unites a socially distant community in their shared identity as Vermonters.
Whether you’ve seen these signs posted around Vermont, or seen restaurants providing food to those of us who need it through Everyone Eats, or seen a professor rework their course curriculum and format to support students’ varying circumstances, it is clear that across Vermont, as Kelly says, there is “this really strong sense of solidarity.”
The driving force of community solidarity can vary, but in CDAE, Kelly summarizes it perfectly: “When I get overwhelmed by the headlines, I come back to ‘what do I need to do for my students today?’ and it’s given me a real sense of purpose.”