As part of a program matching college students with projects in the city of Medford, seven University of Oregon students spent eight hours riding a Rogue Valley Transportation District bus earlier this month, talking with riders about their reasons for using the bus system.
The students' class, Strategic Communications Research, is one of 29 UO classes that are part of the Sustainable Cities Year Program, which is working with the city of Medford throughout the year on projects ranging from redevelopment plans to protecting open space.
The seven students, including senior public relation majors Sierra Kemp and Michele Aggrey, were sent out on Nov. 15 to find out the stories behind why people choose to ride RVTD buses. They also met with RVTD planners.
"Now that we've been to Medford, we have a lot more insight into how RVTD works," said Aggrey. "I don't think we could have understood this project in its whole scope unless we went to Medford."
During a two-hour trip to Ashland and back and another two-hour trip to White City and back, the seven women students found out that almost everyone riding the bus had a very specific reason, whether they were trying to get to work, get parts for their car or get to school.
"A lot of recovering addicts were using the bus to get to their meetings or to get to their court-appointed session," said Kemp. "If they didn't have the bus, they wouldn't be able to respond to that, improve themselves and participate in a recovery system because they wouldn't have anyway else to get there."
Many of the Sustainable Cities classes have visited Medford to get a feel for the city and the area they're working on. They spend the day walking around a given site and talking to city officials and community members.
The Sustainable Cities Year Program is a partnership between the University of Oregon and the city of Medford. Throughout the year more than 400 students will work on projects in their field to generate ideas and plans for a sustainable future.
Medford was chosen out of several applicants. SCYP's manager, Bob Choquette, said he decided to partner with Medford because the projects incorporated many fields and majors at the university, including planning, public policy and management (PPPM) classes that are creating redevelopment plans for specific areas, journalism classes looking at emergency preparedness plans and transportation plans and a law student proposing ideas for protecting open space.
"It's really useful for students to get out on the ground early in their education and get this hands-on experience," said Rebecca Lewis, a PPPM professor teaching Human Settlements. "They really enjoy going out and feeling like they have an impact on the community."
While students get real-world experience, the city gets a variety of ideas for how to expand their projects.
"It's really cool to go in there as a student and propose these wild, out-of-the-box ideas that actually could work but they could never come off the ground if city staff were to propose them," said law student KC McFerson. "Because it comes from students, people are more likely to give it a shot."
McFerson is developing a plan that accesses the legal tools Medford can use to protect its open space. This involves helping Medford define what land it wants to declare as open space, which can be anything from wetlands to parks to golf courses.
Through these projects, Medford gains insight from undergraduate and graduate students who are working at a professional level and are close to starting their own careers.
"Medford gets the energy and expertise of students and faculty at the U of O, they get exposed to new ideas that they may not be aware of, and they get help in moving projects forward that they don't have the time for or are politically sensitive," Choquette said.
Some of the projects span three university terms and others will start after the school's winter break, bringing new students and new ideas to Medford.
The students working with RVTD are busy analyzing their data to build a report, which they will present to RVTD officials during the final week of the term.
Nicole Ginley-Hidinger is a journalism student at the University of Oregon.