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Kaitlyn PatiaKaitlyn Patia has long been interested in the ways that civic engagement and rhetorical studies intersect, beginning as an undergraduate student at Northwestern University.

That was where she worked for the Civic Education Project, a nonprofit that introduces high school students to social issues by combining community- and classroom-based learning. As she pursued her graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota and Pennsylvania State, she explored even deeper how the study of rhetoric can provide a pathway to conversation and collective action around important community issues.

Now Patia will bring her passion for community engaged learning to Whitman College, thanks to the Mellon Periclean Faculty Leadership Program in the Humanities, a grant program run by nonprofit higher education consortium Project Pericles. It’s the first time a Whitman faculty member has received the $4,000 grant, which supports the development of a course dedicated to tackling the “grand challenges” of climate change, education access, immigration, mass incarceration, race and inequality or voter engagement. 

Exploring Local Barriers to Education

Patia, an assistant professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing and Public Discourse (RWPD), joined the Whitman faculty in 2016. She will use her award to develop a 300-level class called “Rhetorical Field Methods: Equity and Access in Education.”

“I was really excited to be chosen. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate some of the rhetorical scholarship on community-based research and teaching, especially as it relates to issues of equity and social justice, into the curriculum in Rhetoric, Writing and Public Discourse. Civic engagement and community-based learning are a big part of the field,” Patia said. 

The course will launch in Fall 2021, and connect Whitman students with nonprofits and educational organizations in the community. Through the course and their work with these community partners, students will use rhetorical methodologies that focus on incorporating civic engagement, advocacy, community involvement and personal reflection into their research on barriers to equitable access to education in Walla Walla, from pre-K to higher education. 

“Students will not only learn about the challenges surrounding access to education in Walla Walla, but will participate in local efforts to address issues ranging from trauma-informed education to college preparation,” Patia wrote in her application. They’ll also explore related issues, such as health care and affordable housing.

Walla Walla Public Schools, the Community Resilience Initiative and The Health Center have signed on to work on the project, Patia said, but she also hopes to recruit additional partners. She chose to focus on the grand challenge of education access, which has long been identified as a challenge for the Walla Walla community.

She hopes the course draws interest not only from RWPD majors, but students across the college who are interested in working in their communities in collaborative ways that lead to real change.

It’s not Patia’s first time bringing this type of community-oriented programming to Whitman. In 2016, she received a Diversity Innovation Grant to host “Civic Conversations in the Community.” Students enrolled in her public speaking course hosted guided discussion community forums — called deliberations — at the library and Walla Walla High School on issues of pressing local concern. Patia hopes to host a similar event at the end of this new course to showcase the work of students and partner agencies. 

“People rightly get frustrated with this idea that we’re talking and talking about things, but there’s no action,” she said. Deliberations are about being action-oriented, and having pointed conversations about solutions.

“It’s nice to have this extended time and space to develop a course,” Patia said. “It’s especially important and exciting that I get to do that work with community partners.” 

Community agencies who would be interested in partnering with Patia on the course can contact her at patiakg@whitman.edu.