Neda Moayerian jumped at the opportunity to join a “lively and engaging” team of graduate students helping distressed regions of Southwest Virginia.

“I want to help increase the quality of life in communities struggling with poverty and inequality,” said Moayerian, who is from Iran and is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public and International Affairs in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. “Community development in Appalachia is especially important since fewer international development agencies prioritize a region in the United States for development projects.”

Recently, her team received a $10,000 boost from Vibrant Virginia, a university-wide project that offers funding in the form of seed grants. In Moayerian's case, the grant supports the team’s graduate assistants and pays for their travel, workshop materials, and training needs.

“With Vibrant Virginia, we are addressing complex challenges relating to the urban-rural divide,” said Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs. Along with Virginia Cooperative Extension, Outreach and International Affairs is funding the bulk of the program, which helps Virginia Tech staff, faculty members, and students do effective research and engagement work.

“A significant part of the university’s work in rural Virginia is to offer expertise in communities building resilience and sustainable livelihoods,” Ghosh said. 

A man speaks to two people seated at a table in front of him.
Max Stephenson Jr., professor of public and international affairs and director of the Institute for Policy and Governance, speaks to community leaders at a meeting in Pennington Gap, Virginia.

Moayerian, part of a group called the Community Change Collaborative, is working with Pennington Gap, Virginia. She and the other graduate students are developing strategies to address top concerns, which the town’s leadership identified as tourism and health care. “We try to help community members to get together, have a conversation about a common issue, and generate solutions collectively,” she said.

Their work begins with a listening session to determine what the communities want and what their assets and challenges are. “Our aim throughout is neither to assume that the communities are hapless nor to imagine that they do not require support and assistance,” she said. The collaborative is also working in Patrick County, which is in the initial stages of building a framework to pinpoint long-term planning needs.

“We’re deploying Virginia Tech faculty and student researchers to examine the challenges and to work with the communities to create solutions,” Ghosh said of the two-year Vibrant Virginia project.

With a community’s goals identified, the team helps outline a plan. The projects also help to expose the communities to new ideas, alternative strategies, and other experts at Virginia Tech, sparking discussions well into the future.

“Vibrant Virginia grants enable students to extend the reach of their efforts, especially in fieldwork," said Max Stephenson Jr., professor of public and international affairs and director of the Institute for Policy and Governance. "Those experiences are providing them invaluable opportunities to learn firsthand about the dynamics of community change and to do so in a multifaceted and reflective way.”

The Office of Economic Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs, is coordinating the Vibrant Virginia effort along with other key partners, including the College Access Collaborative, the Policy Strategic Growth Area in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the School of Public and International Affairs. Vibrant Virginia has already held “community conversation” meetings around Virginia, and more are planned. Four community projects are underway.

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh

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