Anthropology class lives in retirement center to learn new culture

Dr. Wesch, associate professor of anthropology, listens to students present their projects in Waters Hall on Thursday. (Emily Lenk | The Collegian)

It is not often that college students live just steps away from retirement communities, but for 11 students this semester, these communities are now their living quarters.

For the last four years, the Digital Ethnography class taught by Michael Wesch, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social work, has spent the spring semester living in the Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community. The students interact with the citizens living there while studying the older generation. They then create a digital story about what they learned from Meadowlark.

“Even our most mundane moments of life are blooming and buzzing with complexity,” Wesch said. “So what we’re trying to do is create a digital art that can present the mundaneness in a very profound way that brings out that blooming, buzzing capacity. In some ways, we see the things we produce as an attempt to produce empathy and understanding. In many ways that’s just kind of what anthropology is about.”

Rachel Nyhart, senior in anthropology, said the main objective is to get ethnography experience. Since the class cannot travel to a different country, she said Wesch has the students live in Meadowlark to gain some experience with a different culture.

“We’re not really able to have those experiences in a different country,” Nyhart said. “So this is his way of allowing us to kind of do a full immersion thing while still attending school, yet kind of learning a different community and a different culture and getting that ethnography experience.”

Not only is this a learning experience for students in the class, but also residents of the retirement home.

“The number one thing is I’ve learned a lot about anthropology,” Kay Shanks, a Meadowlark Hills resident, said. “I had no idea what it was. Number two, it’s fun to visit with them. It’s amazing. They have taken our stereotypes of the young people and blown those all to smithereens.”

Students have also broken down preconceived stereotypes of their own, Bridget Lynch, sophomore in anthropology, said.

“One of the biggest (stereotypes) is that they aren’t active,” Lynch said. “We get the ‘Meadowlark Messenger,’ their newsletter, every Thursday, and on the back it’s got a list of activities they can do and it’s everything from tai chi to bingo to card making to movie times, special luncheons and a ball. There’s all these different activities throughout the day, so they’re not just sitting in their room watching TV. They’re doing things.”

One of the activities the class became involved with was a formal dance, held Jan. 29.

“The ball was a mixture of formal and casual attire,” Ariana Dunlap, freshman in theater, said. “The food was really good, like five-star cuisine. The music was really old-fashioned, but it was surprisingly danceable. We mingled with a ton of people and did the photo booth. One of the ladies danced with all the guys. My class likes to say this ball was a lot better than most of our prom experiences.”

Jonathan Lindholm, Meadowlark Hills resident, said just talking to the students is engaging.

“It’s interesting to visit (with them), find out what they’re doing, what courses they’re taking, things like that,” Lindholm said. “I’ve learned that you can get along with the younger generation and learn things from them.”

Nyhart said she has been affected by this experiment in many ways.

“I’ve been learning a lot about myself and how I deal with different situations,” Nyhart said.

Lynch said the class has also changed her perspective.

“The class has really made me grow as a person,” Lynch said. “I’ve never done any kind of fieldwork. I thought this wouldn’t be so different because I hang out with my grandparents all the time, but it’s really interesting to see the personalities everyone has.”

Lynch said the class is great about not only learning about anthropological fieldwork, but for also learning about oneself.

“I would say do it if you want to have an experience unlike anything else,” Lynch said. “It’s something you won’t get anywhere else. You don’t normally have the opportunity to just be a part of a retirement community for a semester.”