"Getting the Folk Through It": Students Document Life in the North Country During COVID-19 | St. Lawrence University

"Getting the Folk Through It": Students Document Life in the North Country During COVID-19

Over the course of their first semester at St. Lawrence, Amy Francesconi ’24 and Ben Lloyd ’24 have immersed themselves in the fabric of their new home in the North Country. Through their First-Year Program, they’ve become citizen folklorists while interviewing and documenting the experiences of their neighbors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I'm a newcomer to the community, and I didn't realize how tightly knit it was,” Amy says. “And I definitely want to get more involved with the North Country community. I know I'm going to be spending the next four years here learning, so I want to give back in some way.”

Amy and Ben were both students in Assistant Professor of History and African Studies Rosa Williams’ First-Year Program (FYP), “Health Activism: Fighting for a Healthier Future.” Their final project focused on preserving local perspectives for “Get the Folk Through It,” a pandemic documentation project by the Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).  

“Not only have students learned from this experience, but their efforts will meaningfully contribute to the work of TAUNY. The interviews they have recorded will be a part of the TAUNY archive, and future researchers will be using the guidance materials they’ve produced,” says Williams. 

Williams’ FYP was also a Community-Based Learning (CBL) course, which typically involves students working closely and fostering connections with individuals and organizations in the North Country in ways that complement their curriculum. Williams collaborated with Adjunct Assistant Professor and TAUNY Director of Research and Programs Camilla Ammirati to ensure their students could safely continue this academic tradition despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was really important to me that they still got to learn not only from what I bring into the classroom or assign them to read or view, but also from people in our broader community, which they were able to do in a physically-distanced format,” says Williams.

Though St. Lawrence offers a number of CBL courses, Director of Community-Based Learning Brenda Papineau ’02, M’06, M’15 believes they’re especially valuable in the FYP.

“This type of experiential learning really helps to open the door for [first-year] students to see the Canton community as their home away from home,” she says.

Williams’ students spent the semester exploring folklore as a field of study and becoming familiar with its core research methods. They applied what they learned and collected primary source material with two rounds of interviews—the first with their peers and the second with community health activists in the North Country.  

“I was so impressed with the seriousness with which they approached the task of interviewing community members, the sensitive questions that they posed, and the connections that they made through these virtual connections,” says Williams. 

“This work is valuable in a number of ways,” says Ammirati. “First, it contributes to the community by helping recognize and celebrate local people's dedicated and creative work in support of public health. And it benefits TAUNY by increasing our capacity to document a wider range of experiences in more depth than we would have been able to do logistically over this past fall.”

Both Amy and Ben felt the most rewarding aspect of this course was the opportunity to get to know their North Country neighbors through the interviews they and their classmates facilitated and shared. 

“Our community is full of extremely caring and empathetic individuals,” says Ben. “Because of the pandemic, we haven’t had the opportunity to meet many individuals within our community. Completing this project about the wonderful work that is going on gave us a snapshot of the type of people in the North Country.”

Aside from helping students get to know their community, this project promoted broader definitions of public health and health activism and the work they encompass.

“I learned that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted people and areas differently—from mental health to local food pantries and food access,” says Amy, who interviewed a local musician who rediscovered the therapeutic and unifying power of her craft during the pandemic. 

“She had actually turned away from music at the beginning of the pandemic because she couldn't imagine not playing with people in the room,” Amy, a musician herself, says. “But she talked about how she changed her mindset to, ‘This is a good thing. I’m missing music because it helps bring people together.’ From there, she went on to create care packages in the form of videos that she had shared on Facebook. She ultimately wanted to help uplift people and improve their mental health.”

Amy and her classmates collected field notes and photos and created a log of topics from each interview. These records will live in TAUNY’s archive for posterity. Williams and Ammirati also tasked students with creating highlights of their conversations that TAUNY will share with the broader public via their social media platforms. 

“This has given them great experience in collaborating on creating compelling written and visual communications for a specific audience and builds on the work we do in the FYP to hone students’ skills in effective communication,” says Williams. “They’ve also had space in their coursework to reflect on what these interviews have meant for them, finding connections with our class materials and conversations and articulating their own vision of the healthier future that they think is worth fighting for.”