In a Design for Health Initiative, students and professors from five academic disciplines at Western Carolina University are exploring how the built environment affects quality of life for older adults living in poverty in Jackson County, and ways it can be improved.
The built environment includes all the human-made spaces where people live, recreate, work and travel — everything from homes, roads, sidewalks and utilities to health care, education and parks.
Shelby Hicks, an assistant professor of interior design in the WCU School of Art and Design, started the initiative in 2019 as a way to help confront longstanding challenges of poverty and poor health in the region.
“I thought we have all these resources here at WCU, people with knowledge to help figure this out,” Hicks said.
The service-learning project is ramping back up again this fall semester.
Eighteen undergraduate students 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 one another as well as participating faculty, and to brainstorm ideas for the project.
Participating faculty 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. That will continue this fall.
“We want to hear from them first,” Hicks said about vulnerable residents living in poverty in the largely rural county. “What is the real priority to them? Then, the students will come up with solutions that we can implement through projects.”
The initiative is building on Jackson County’s latest community health assessment, a document that’s updated every few years and gives a snapshot of issues that local residents are struggling with.
Some issues identified so far include access to healthy food, with roughly one in 20 households having no car and poor access to a store. About a quarter of county residents reported either running out of food or worrying about running out of food last year.
Other challenges run the spectrum from limited transportation services, poor access to health care and mental health services and extremely limited and increasingly costly housing, much of which is older and has issues such as leaky plumbing, roofs and windows.
The initiative is exploring the issue through a broad range of what are called 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 impeded by something as simple as a lack of transportation, a lack of sidewalks or even a difficult set of stairs.
“So, if you don’t have all those things, your health suffers from that,” Hicks said.
The initiative this year will focus on continued community outreach, more listening and data collection. It will then focus on grants to implement projects and programs.
“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 to write a grant, so 2023 will be the year to apply what we’ve learned.”
Madeline Lehman, a senior majoring in political science and sociology who lives in Jackson County, said she’s excited to be part of the collaborative initiative.
Lehman wrapped up a congressional internship this summer and said she’s looking forward to melding her areas of study together for the service-learning project.
“I heard about Design for Health through my sociology professors, but I feel like my political science degree helps me. I want to get into policy issues around issues like low-income housing, so I feel it ties in well with both of my degrees,” Lehman said. “The retreat made me super optimistic for the semester coming up. We all became super comfortable with each other and bounced a lot of ideas of what we can do together as a group. I’m optimistic about what we can accomplish.”