Western Carolina University – A Healthier Community, By Design

By Tom Lotshaw

Eighteen WCU students from five academic disciplines explore Jackson County’s built environment and ways to improve it for the benefit of seniors living in poverty. Students met with participating faculty for a one-day retreat this summer as the project picks up momentum this fall semester.

As part of a design for health initiative, students and faculty from five academic disciplines at Western Carolina University explore how the built environment affects quality of life for older adults living in poverty in Jackson County , and how to improve it.

The built environment includes all the man-made spaces where people live, play, work and move – from homes, roads, sidewalks and public services to healthcare, education and parks.

Shelby Hicks, assistant professor of interior design at the WCU School of Art and Design, started the initiative in 2019 as a way to help address the longstanding challenges of poverty and poor health in the region.

“I thought we had all these resources here at WCU, people with knowledge to help figure that out,” Hicks said.

The Service Learning Project is picking up steam again this fall semester.

Eighteen undergraduates are participating this semester, with majors including sociology, social work, environmental health, business, and interior design. They met for a full-day retreat over the summer to get to know each other and the participating teachers, and brainstorm ideas for the project.

Participating professors include Hicks, Professor of Management Yue Hillon, Associate Professor of Social Work Amy Murphy-Nugen, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sara Duncan and Assistant Professor of Sociology Yiqing Yang.

Over the past two years, participating students and faculty have met with nonprofit groups and community members to hear concerns, learn about needs, assess homes and neighborhoods, and discuss priorities. This will continue this fall.

“We want to hear from them first,” Hicks said of vulnerable residents living in poverty in the largely rural county. “What is the real priority for them? Then the students will find solutions that we can implement through projects.

The initiative builds on the latest Jackson County Community Health Assessment, a document updated every few years that provides insight into the issues local residents face.

Some issues identified so far include access to healthy food, with around one in 20 households having no car and limited access to a store. About a quarter of county residents reported running out of food or worrying about running out of food in the past year.

Other challenges range from limited transportation services, poor access to healthcare and mental health services, and extremely limited and increasingly expensive housing, most of which is older and has issues such as plumbing. , leaky roofs and windows.

The initiative explores the issue through a wide range of what are known as the social determinants of health: access to health care and education, economic stability, and access to social supports such as friends, neighbors and caregivers.

The latter, access to social supports, is something that can be hindered by something as simple as a lack of transportation, a lack of sidewalks, or even a difficult staircase.

“So if you don’t have all of those things, your health suffers,” Hicks said.

This year, the initiative will focus on ongoing community outreach, greater listening and data collection. It will then focus on grants to implement projects and programs.

Madeleine Lehman

Madeleine Lehman

“We’re going to have another retreat this fall to assess what we’ve learned from the listening sessions,” Hicks said. “We’ll have guest speakers, a poverty simulation, and then we’ll start preparing for grant writing, so 2023 will be the year to apply what we’ve learned.”

Madeline Lehman, a senior political science and sociology student who lives in Jackson County, said she was thrilled to be part of the collaborative initiative.

Lehman wrapped up a congressional internship this summer and said she looked forward to merging her fields of study for the Service-Learning Project.

“I heard about design for health through my sociology professors, but I feel like my degree in political science helps me. I want to address policy issues around issues like low-income housing, so I think it fits well with both of my degrees,” Lehman said. “Retirement made me super optimistic for the semester ahead. We all got super comfortable with each other and exchanged a lot of ideas about what we can do together as a group. I’m optimistic about what we can accomplish.

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