By Robert W. Dalton

Rylee Jorgensen ’23 is a sprinter on the Wofford track team who has landed in a marathon in the classroom.

Jorgensen, a sociology and anthropology major from Maryville, Tenn., began a project at the Cleveland Academy of Leadership in Spartanburg examining parental involvement and its connection to student success. The project was one of four undertaken by students in Dr. Alysa Handelsman’s ethnography class. Handelsman is assistant professor of sociology and anthropology.

Three of the projects partnered with the Cleveland Academy, the Hub City Farmers’ Market and the Spartanburg Food Systems Coalition. Two student research teams worked with each of these organizations.

Another team worked on an equity and diversity project, inspired by the vision of Spartanburg’s Truth and Racial Healing Transformation working group.

“Before the semester began, I connected with different community partners to see if they had any research needs my ethnography students could help with,” Handelsman says. “This research model is hands-on, experiential learning and it’s useful for the community, too. That’s what I really like about this design.”

Jorgensen’s team found that opportunities for parental involvement were limited at Cleveland Academy.

“There weren’t a whole lot of things going on, and if there were, they were in the middle of the school day when a lot of working families couldn’t go,” Jorgensen says. “And when things were planned, parents received little advanced notice.”

The team suggested some simple fixes – yearly and monthly calendars, updating the school’s website and improving communication with parents. But, Jorgensen says, part of the responsibility belongs to the parents.

Jorgensen says the work the team did was preliminary and she hopes to continue the project to completion during next year’s sustainability seminar. If she can’t, she wants to have it in shape to pass off to the next person.

“There’s not going to be a quick change,” Jorgensen said. “It’s going to take some time to have parents come, and just because you plan things it doesn’t mean they will come.”

Mary Elizabeth Evans, a reading interventionist who helps with community engagement at the school, says the team was professional in its approach. She says the school has already adopted some of their suggestions and is ready to move forward with more.

“We look forward to working with Rylee on creating a dynamic parent portal/website for parents to find current information, staff contact info and volunteer opportunities,” she says. “We will also plan more evening events for parents next year, as their surveys indicated that this was the most preferred time for parent events.”

Brandon Molina ’22, a biology major from Clover, S.C., was part of the diversity and equity project team. He hopes to continue the project as an independent study in the fall.

The team’s initial goal was to create a comprehensive list of organizations, committees and individual positions around Spartanburg involved in diversity, equity or inclusion initiatives. They wanted to understand how these groups define diversity and inclusion and how they measure the impact of their initiatives.

The list grew to more than 70 different groups. Many of the groups provide direct services – such as housing and therapy.

“We asked them to name the groups they worked in collaboration with,” Molina says. “What we heard time and again was that they hadn’t reached out because they didn’t have time.”

The team was able to identify some commonalities and make some preliminary recommendations. But, Molina says, there’s still much to be done.

“We touched on next steps, and there were more questions that came up,” he says. “We hope our work can be a guide for future researchers.”

Sarah Peak ’22, an environmental studies and sociology and anthropology major from Irmo, S.C., and Blake Batten ’23, a sociology and anthropology major from Anderson, S.C., were part of teams that partnered with the Hub City Farmers’ Market in its quest to reinvent itself post-COVID.

Peak’s team surveyed farmers and other vendors in an effort to find out what they wanted from the market. Their major request was for the market to provide more family activities as a way to attract new consumers. They also expressed the desire to see new, smaller farmers.

“Generally, farmers love the market,” Peak says. “They go there because it’s local, it has a great atmosphere and it’s a way for them to get their products to customers.”

Batten’s group focused on the market’s desire to expand its customer base. The team talked to current customers and designed a survey and held a focus group for residents of the Northside — the consumers the market wanted to reach.

“One of the big things we learned is what the farmer’s market is doing right now works really well for their current customers,” Batten says. “But the community they want to reach isn’t responding because they feel it’s not for them.”

Batten says she would like to continue with the project and help find solutions.

Drake Ives ’22, a business economics major from Sumter, S.C., was a member of one of the teams assigned to study Spartanburg’s community kitchens and their purpose. Ives turned it into a business venture that raised money for Ruth’s Gleanings, a Spartanburg nonprofit whose mission is to increase access to fresh, healthy foods. She also used the experience as an opportunity to reward Wofford’s COVID-19 heroes.

“I thought how great would it be if we all lived like we were on a team together,” says Ives. “That’s what this project did.”

Through Big Leagues Ball Club, her one-on-one coaching business for young athletes, Ives purchased 95 boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables from Ruth’s Gleanings. She then struck a deal with Campus Union to purchase the boxes from Big Leagues Ball Club. The boxes were then distributed to facilities, security and Wellness Center staff, all of whom put in extra time and effort during the pandemic.

Handelsman says the opportunity to collaborate with community partners was a great learning experience for her students. They saw firsthand how ethnographic research can inform and positively impact the planning efforts of local organizations.

“This was a really great start,” Handelsman says. “I’ve got so many ideas about what shape this could take moving forward in different classes, particularly the year-long sustainability seminar I teach.”