Jordan Thomas and MacKenzie Wade never dreamed their college experience would include moving into Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community in Manhattan, Kansas.
Their semester spent living among senior citizens was part of a class project for Dr. Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. For the past three years, Wesch has arranged for a group of his students to live full-time in Meadowlark Hills during the spring semester.
“In the process, the students gather over 100 hours of material and then have to find a way to tell a story about it so they can convey the transformation they’ve had to a larger audience,” Wesch said. “Anthropology is all about meeting people and engaging with the world, so I thought maybe we could do that right here.”
Thomas and Wade turned their experience into a 9-minute video reenactment of residents’ stories — tales of separation during World War II, reuniting, raising a family and eventually entering a retirement home.
“At first, living in Meadowlark was hard because we viewed the residents as homework,” Wade said. “After a while, these became real relationships and this video is a product of that.”
“We learned from books just like in any other class, but the really deep learning came from our relationships with the residents,” Thomas said.
With help from philanthropic gifts to the university, Thomas and Wade were able to present their video at Ethnographilm film festival in Paris last April.
“The reality is, we’re not just training these kids to make a living,” Wesch said, describing the transformation he sees in each of his students as they complete their individual projects. “We’re trying to help them make a life worth living, and that requires all kinds of skills that can’t just be taught and given a letter grade.”
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