For nearly his entire two-decade career at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tim Ezzell (’88, ’96, ’02) has taken students in his sustainable communities course into the heart of Tennessee’s Appalachian communities to serve.
As far west as Pickett County on the southern Kentucky border across to Johnson County in the northeast and down to Polk County east of Chattanooga, students have led projects to revitalize tourism in aging community centers, reduce light pollution to help stargazers enjoy dark skies, and increase access to state parks.
Regardless of where they go, the message from Ezzell and his students is always the same: we’re here for you, because to UT you are not invisible.
“Tennessee is a land-grant institution,” says Ezzell, a research assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment. “We’re supported by every taxpayer in the state, and we believe we should be serving all of them.”
The sustainable communities course is the university’s contribution to the larger Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP), a federal applied research program for Appalachian college students. The project, which celebrates 20 years this fall, is a partnership between about a dozen universities across as many states. UT has been a partner since the ATP first launched in 2001.
In addition to supporting local communities, UT’s participation in the ATP provides skills for students who plan to pursue careers in community and economic development. Since 2001, 2,350 students have participated in the ATP. According to data collected by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which funds and oversees the project, 65 percent of those students still lived in Appalachia as of 2019.
Alaina Wood (’17) took Ezzell’s class in fall 2015 while working on her bachelor’s degree in geography and sustainability. That year, her class traveled to Mountain City, Tennessee, to develop signage, create maps, and use virtual reality technology to improve access to Doe Mountain Recreation Area.
Though originally from Maryland, Wood grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee, and had visited Doe Mountain as a kid.
“It was exciting to do a college project with a community that I knew,” Wood says.
Wood is now an environmental planner for the First Tennessee Development District. She is responsible for assisting with solid waste management and environmental education and with organizing cleanups throughout northeast Tennessee. Participating in Ezzell’s class opened her eyes to the need only miles from her home.
“It’s something I just didn’t see growing up in an urban part of the state,” Wood says. “I don’t think I would’ve known how much help the community needed until Tim’s class.”
You never know what you’ll learn
For the 20th anniversary of the ATP, Ezzell expected to go big—he and his students would drive a fleet of UT electric vehicles from Chattanooga to London, Kentucky, stopping along the way to conduct interviews and study infrastructure for supporting sustainable automobile travel in the region.
Then COVID-19 hit. After years of working across the state, Ezzell had no shortage of contacts to help develop an alternative project. He reached out to Jesse Turner, mayor of Loretto, Tennessee, a city of 1,800 residents in rural Lawrence County. Turner was a 2019–20 fellow of the Appalachian Leadership Institute, another commission initiative, which Ezzell conducts with two UT units: the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and the Tickle College of Engineering.
Ezzell had an idea.
“At UT, we’re testing waste streams coming out of the dorms to search for potential infections,” Ezzell says. “What if we could use this in underserved and rural communities where the capacity to track illness isn’t as strong?”
A picture of Loretto’s overall COVID-19 rates could help inform public health measures.
Turner, who had been to campus as a high school participant in the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering, was in. “We’re four or five hours away depending on traffic, but we’ve got several UT grads in the county and a lot of Tennessee fans,” Turner says. In his office for a Friday Zoom meeting, he wears UT orange; a UT license plate and photo frame are on his desk in the background.
In late October, Ezzell and several students spent a day in Loretto.
Maria Urias, a senior political science major from Lenoir City, Tennessee, was surprised to see horse-drawn buggies along the roads as she drove into town. At City Hall, Turner told the class about Lawrence County’s prominent Amish population. It reminded Urias why Ezzell emphasizes site visits, even with masks and social distancing. You never know what you’ll learn.
Turner brought students to the sewage plant, where they took samples to bring back to UT’s Hazen Lab for COVID-19 testing. Students also met with representatives from Loretto Telecom to learn how broadband internet access is being expanded across the county with support from the state government and funding from the federal CARES Act.
“When a lot of people picture rural communities, they think there’s nothing there,” Urias says. “That’s definitely not true for Loretto. There’s a lot there. It just looks different.”
Robin Peeler (’18), now the East Tennessee area manager for Tennessee State Parks, remembers sitting down with her classmates for lunch at a restaurant in Jamestown, Tennessee, on a site visit. Their class project focused on dark sky conservation. For the visit, Ezzell insisted students wear orange, buy local, and engage with residents wherever they stopped.
“I wasn’t just driving through real fast to get to the next place,” Peeler says. “I was slowing down in order to really get to know these people and their challenges. As a class, we had to work hard, but it was fun and interesting, and our work was immediately applicable to the real world.”
Peeler has served as a guest speaker for Ezzell’s class since graduating. She is continuing the work done at Pickett through her role with the state parks system’s Go Green With Us initiative.
Urias, whose family moved to Tennessee from Curitiba, Brazil, is planning to focus her Baker Scholars thesis on how COVID-19 is affecting economically distressed communities in Appalachian Tennessee. She decided on the topic after just two weeks in Ezzell’s class: “I may not have been born in Appalachia,” she says, “but I was molded by it.”
The energy and commitment of the students always impressed James Talley, City Council member and former mayor of Ducktown in rural Polk County, Tennessee.
“You don’t see a lot of universities running these types of programs for community development in the region,” Talley says.
In 2014, students successfully crowdfunded a 3D printer for the Copper Basin Learning Center in Talley’s county as part of a project evaluating the suitability of crowdfunding for supporting rural Appalachian communities.
“You can tell it flows from the top,” he says. “Tim’s instilled that in them.”
A place for passion and ideas
Every year, students present their class projects to the Appalachian Regional Commission as part of a symposium held in Washington, DC. Ezzell is known for wearing a UT orange blazer and matching shoes to the event.
“The passion’s very clear,” Wood says. “Who else wears that much orange?”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year students from all participating universities will present online November 13 and 14. Ezzell’s class is hoping to have its wastewater results by then.
Students added two other elements to their work in Loretto. They are exploring the potential for a telehealth kiosk for residents to get basic services without risking virus exposure. With a $5,000 grant provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission, they also hope to create an outdoor study space beside the city’s public library, a project that is likely to happen in the spring.
Kostas Skordas, director of research and evaluation for the ARC, has worked with Ezzell and his students since 2002.
“From the beginning, Tim’s work has been in rural economically distressed communities,” says Skordas. “In addition to teaching students vital skills, he’s building capacity at the local level. It’s a consistent theme of his work.”
The ARC also partners with Ezzell for the Appalachian Leadership Institute, which welcomed 40 new fellows from 13 states last month for its nine-month program. In 2017, the commission awarded Ezzell and researchers in UT’s Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management a $200,000 grant to study tourism and business development in the region. It is the largest and most comprehensive study of tourism ever conducted by the commission, with results expected to be published before the end of 2020.
Ezzell, a native of East Ridge, Tennessee, never expected so much of his career to be defined by service to Appalachia. It was a need he chose to meet. The impact has now stretched over two decades into dozens of communities. It has left an impression on students like Wood and Peeler, who continue the work in their own spaces, as well as those like Urias who are just now encountering Ezzell’s work in the region.
“Going out and seeing these places, meeting the people, gives students an experience they just can’t capture reading a book in a classroom,” Ezzell says. “I can’t teach you how to make a connection. I can’t teach you to read a room. But I can put you in a place where you can use your passion and your ideas to make a real difference in the lives of real people.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)