Photo/Darryl Nester

(left to right) Hayley Olmstead, Corbin Knedler, and Karissa Allen attach a hand railing to a deck at a home in Verda, Kentucky. They are all students at Bluffton University who participated in a May term learning experience with SWAP. 

Most people would agree that hands-on experiences are the best way to learn. For students from Bluffton University in Bluffton, Ohio, a May term class in Appalachia has enabled them to do just that.

Since 2012, Bluffton University has been sending a group of students to MCC’s Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) program in Kentucky and West Virginia for two weeks in May as part of their cross-cultural program.

Darryl Nester, a mathematics professor, led the groups of students the past two years. “Bluffton hopes that students gain an awareness of how their own experiences impact their worldview, and also learn to resist the temptation to make hasty or oversimplified judgments,” explained Nester.

In preparation for the experience, he and the students spend a lot time talking about the stereotypes of Appalachia they have seen in the media and pop culture. As is true of all the Bluffton cross-cultural experiences, there is both a service component and cultural learning component which encourages students to challenge their assumptions.

The group spent the first week at the SWAP site in Harlan, Kentucky, where they helped with home repair projects for local homeowners including rebuilding a roof and replacing a deck. Some students also helped with painting projects around the community.

Bluffton students TJ Mills (front) and Rose Hayes paint curbs in the city of Harlan, Kentucky, as part of the service portion of Bluffton University's May term learning experience with SWAP.MCC photo/Pete Broersma

“One student shared how he had never had the opportunity or been taught to use basic carpentry tools or to paint,” said Stephanie Broersma, SWAP Harlan Location Coordinator. “He felt these skills were valuable for him to learn, and he even talked of using them in the future to flip houses.” The group was also impacted by time spent at Christ’s Hands, a local organization providing food, shelter and other aid.

“I learned that doing volunteer work does make a difference in other people's lives,” said Rose Hayes, a student participant from Lima, Ohio. “It intrigues me how many people appreciate our work even if I never meet them.”

The second week the group moved to Hindman, Kentucky, where they spent time with MCC partner Hindman Settlement School and visited farming cooperatives, community centers, cultural resource centers and an addiction rehabilitation center.

Bluffton group Students from Bluffton University had the opportunity for a broad range of experiences during two weeks with SWAP in Harlan and Hindman, Kentucky. MCC photo/Pete Broersma

For Hayes, a dulcimer lesson was one of the highlights of the week. “The instrument interests me and being able to see other people from the community enjoying playing together, even though there was no music reading involved,” she reflected.

They also learned about the waning coal industry, experienced the natural beauty of Appalachia and heard from local speakers on topics such as racism in Appalachia. “This week is important because the people here need ears to hear their stories, struggles and successes,” said Lou Pirozzi-Erb, SWAP Hindman Location Coordinator. “If we are ever to lessen the stereotypes of Appalachian people this is one small way to work toward that.”

Nester agrees that the first-hand experiences make the biggest impact. “Students are often surprised by the contrast in geography and culture, even though we are only about six hours from Bluffton,” said Nester. “Visiting Appalachia—even for a short time—helps them to see how inaccurate and incomplete those stereotypes are.”

If your school or group is interested in exploring a similar SWAP learning experience, contact the SWAP office at (606) 633-5065 or

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