Jessica Murray, a senior majoring in biology at the University of North Georgia, was surprised to travel halfway around the world to the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine and find how similar the region's culture is to Appalachia.
|Jessica Murray, seated, center, is pictured with five of the six students who attend
this small school in the Carpathian mountain village of Volova.
"Going across the Atlantic Ocean and finding a group of people who have similar values and live in a similar geographic environment is a good way to remember that they're not that different from us," Murray said. "While it's important to preserve the uniqueness, it's also important to remember the commonalities."
Murray, who is from Gwinnett County, and Rosann Kent, director of UNG's Appalachian Studies Center, presented at the Carpathians/Appalachians International Conference in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, at the Precarpathian National University (PNU). The conference also featured American universities that have had Appalachian studies programs for decades like Berea College in Kentucky, Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and East Tennessee State University. During their stay, delegates to the conference also visited local schools and museums to learn more about the region and the "Hutsuls," the group of people who have lived in the Carpathian mountains for generations.
Murray is minoring in Appalachian studies and has been working on the center's research in heirloom seeds, which are seeds that have been passed down from one generation to another.
Last year, students collected heirloom seeds from gardeners throughout Lumpkin County, then presented their research in a "communograph" — a piece of artwork representing the seeds, the stories, and the people. The project, "Heirloom seed keepers & their stories: Growing community and sustainability through arts-based research," aims to preserve Appalachian culture and heritage and connect students with the community. Murray and fellow students presented their research at a conference in Washington, D.C., and have been published in UNG's Papers and Pubs scholarly journal.
"In addition to being one of our leading scholars in Appalachian studies, Jessica has worked really hard to mobilize students across UNG's campuses on issues of sustainability and local foods," Kent said. "I'm really proud that UNG was represented at this conference and others by such a talented student as Jessica. The work that she and the other students have been doing, combining biology and story-telling and art, is really cutting-edge."
Murray said she feels combining her studies in biology and Appalachia gives her a well-rounded approach to studying and helping to preserve other cultures by seeing how ecology and culture fit together.
"Biology is important for understanding how to conserve the natural world, but I think having an understanding of communicating with different cultures is a good way to perpetuate conservation," she said. "I'm not just learning about Appalachia, but also how to engage in a community and understand it by being immersed in it rather than studying with a detached anthropological view."
Based on her studies and her experiences in Ukraine, Murray said she's interested in continuing to work on sustainable development of communities on a larger scale.
"It was encouraging to see the potential for two countries or two cultures to work together and learn from each other's histories," she said. "I'd really be interested in being a part of these international conversations about how we can work together to sustainably develop our world."