As Vanessa Drew-Branch acclimated to Elon in 2018, she started asking her students about their experience on campus. That’s when the associate professor of human service studies first heard the expression, “the Elon Bubble.”

Intrigued, she asked her colleagues about it, and learned it was an anecdotal shorthand used to describe the perceived disconnect between the campus and the larger Alamance County community.

Drew-Branch, who grew up in rural Appalachia in Pennsylvania, knew there was a lot of unique knowledge possessed by members of the community that students would benefit from. She recognized an opportunity to bridge the gap as part of her teaching and scholarship.

A chance meeting with colleagues from across campus led Drew-Branch to The Power + Place Collaborative. The initiative aims to preserve and present stories from and about people and places in Alamance County.

“The goal was to collect stories about this area so our students understood, and the larger community understood, the power and the history and the richness that is in this soil, that is in this place,” Drew-Branch says. “It’s important for students to understand they aren’t transient here. They live here for four years, and sometimes longer. They can become a very integral part of this community.”

My whole career is about creating spaces of belonging, and how we increase the belonging particularly for communities that have been marginalized in our social fabric.

Through conversations with community partners, Drew-Branch and the Elon team discovered a hunger for capturing oral histories, particularly from Black residents, something they started doing in fall 2020. More recently, the collective expanded to capture the stories of the Muslim community in the area.

“We’ve been collecting the most beautiful stories about the history of Alamance County,” she says. “The Power and Place Collaborative has really been my way of extending my hand outside of the bubble to say, ‘How can we give you something that you actually want, and how can we learn and be curious about the people we live among?’ I think that’s where a true relationship is built.”

Drew-Branch’s work has always focused on building relationships through diversity, equity and inclusion. “My whole career is about creating spaces of belonging, and how we increase the belonging particularly for communities that have been marginalized in our social fabric,” she says.

In the classroom, that means providing different entryways for students to see themselves reflected in the coursework. She also offers different ways of assessing learning: For strong writers, she offers written assessments; for students who communicate better verbally, she offers oral presentations. “If you have diverse ways of assessing people, you invite more students in,” she says.

Drew-Branch has found that by giving students different entry points, they are more willing to share or participate in class discussion. “One of my favorite parables that I start my classes with is, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’” she says. “It’s really this emphasis on collective action. It’s helping them to see that we have to find the gifts in each one of us so that we can move collectively further together.”

She has found Elon to be fertile ground for this collective work to continue. “There is potential in the soil here to do good work, not just for Elon but for Alamance County, for this part of the world,” Drew-Branch says. “There are a lot of opportunities available because of the resources that have been made available for us to do the good work.”