Communication Faculty, Students Advance SOAR Initiative

Whitehouse with students photo

Students and faculty in Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Communication are continuing to provide media content for the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative.

Dr. Ginny Whitehouse, associate professor in the Department, assigned her second-level Reporting and Writing for the Media students in-depth stories about issues that surfaced during the regional listening sessions. Her students chose topics they felt were most important.

Gov. Steve Beshear and Fifth District Congressman Hal Rogers launched the SOAR initiative in late 2013 as a bi-partisan effort to engage in conversation and action regarding the future of Eastern Kentucky. The plan included 10 working groups representing various interests that hosted more than 100 summer regional listening sessions across eastern Kentucky, each focusing on the most common regional concerns.

Initially, EKU Department of Communication faculty offered public relations expertise in the form of several interns who covered the sessions and provided much-needed media outreach. As a new crop of fall interns replaced those from summer, the work is continuing – and even bolstered as Eastern faculty have adopted SOAR-related course work across the curriculum that includes not just public relations courses but also fundraising and journalism.

The students’ stories, once completed and edited, will be shared equally among media outlets via Eastern View(,a website that showcases student work. A newly-created media features and news bank, hosted within the site, is designed for getting student work published in the region while addressing rural media needs for more regional coverage. The site gives students the opportunity to have their pieces selected and distributed across the state through social and traditional media.

“The students are really interested in pursuing things that they care about,” Whitehouse said. “We are using SOAR as a source to develop these news stories.”      

Ashley Owens, 20, a journalism major and student in Whitehouse’s Reporting and Writing for the Media course, is researching the importance of art in eastern Kentucky.

In Owens’ hometown, Olive Hill, flooding is a problem, resulting in damage to exteriors and interiors of homes and other buildings. The use of murals and art to disguise that damage is a common theme.

“I like the idea that art can be used to recover a town after it has been hit by a natural disaster,” Owens said. “Art can be used to cover walls that are damaged.”

Owens said her research is important because she can view how other towns handle crisis situations and apply that knowledge in her hometown. She says she is interested in following SOAR even after her coursework is complete by creating a blog to write about SOAR issues.

Another student in the class, journalism major KaLeigh Underwood, 20, is passionate about the development of eastern Kentucky. She is minoring in Sustainability in Appalachia and is a member of EKU’s newly-formed group, Students for Appalachia. She is conducting research on the importance of state parks and the tourism revenue they bring to the state.

As an additional part of her research, Underwood is investigating white-nose syndrome, a condition that causes fungal growth on hibernating bats. Carter Caves, near her hometown of Olive Hill, is among many caves worldwide that serve as host for this emergent disease.

“It’s a huge deal because bats are important to the ecosystem,” Underwood said. “They are waking up, it’s cold, there’s nothing to eat.”

Underwood said that prior to taking Dr. Whitehouse’s class she was already interested in what SOAR was doing for eastern Kentucky. She said she is specifically interested in following the Leadership Development and Youth Engagement Working Group.

“If you don’t prepare the youth, you won’t have leaders,” Underwood said.

David McFaddin, EKU’s executive director of governmental affairs and regional stewardship, is impressed with student work throughout the Department of Communication. He said the most important component of an education at EKU is to experience hands-on work.

“I think our students are doing great work,” McFaddin said. “Everyone has had really great things to say about EKU, the students, and the work that has been done though the internship programs.”

Since the SOAR/EKU partnership began in 2014, Eastern has supported eight paid student internship positions. McFaddin is confident in continued support for these positions for future semesters so that students and the SOAR initiative can experience continued success.

McFaddin asked Department of Communication Instructor and SOAR Liaison Melissa Newman to take the internship program one step further and ask colleagues to explore new avenues for student projects.

"When I was asked to recruit faculty members to implement SOAR assignments from across our curriculum I wasn't sure at first about the level of interest," Newman said. "I now have Dr. Whitehouse's class engaged and commitments from two other professors coming on board for the spring semester – one for fundraising and one for public relations."

Whitehouse and Newman are also taking a group of Communication students to the SOAR Summit in Pikeville on Feb. 16 to provide coverage for the various sessions.

Published on February 06, 2015

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