- Arts and Humanities
- Community Impact
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For young people in small towns, it can sometimes feel like you need to leave home to make a difference in the world. Four students from Pitt-Johnstown are doing just the opposite.
Emma Swihura, Mattie Updyke, Callie Burgan and MacKenzie Caron (pictured above) want their hometown transformed into a place where community members have the resources necessary to excel. Over the summer, they got their chance to initiate change and write a new narrative.
The four served as the first cohort of the John P. Murtha Public Service Fellowship. A tribute to the late Congressman John P. Murtha's legacy, the paid, seven-week fellowship offers participating students a platform to identify and support solutions to community challenges. The program brings together the John P. Murtha Foundation, Vision Together 2025, the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Johnstown Area Regional Industries, the Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce and Pitt-Johnstown to award $10,000 in grants to support community-based organizations.
"It was special for the four of us because we're from the Johnstown area and were able to be tourists in our own town," said Swihura, a junior studying early childhood and special education. "Growing up, we're taught you need to go to college so you can move away from here. I don't think that's true at all. Johnstown has a lot to offer, and the fellowship confirmed that."
Congressman John P. Murtha is a household name in Johnstown and beyond. A Vietnam War veteran and 1961 Pitt alum, he died in 2010 at age 78. He was the longest-serving congressperson in Pennsylvania history and was lauded for his commitment to public service.
Ray Wrabley, a professor of political science at Pitt-Johnstown, liaises between the University and the Murtha Foundation, and praised the fellows' contributions, work and efforts to honor Murtha.
"In social sciences and the humanities, we look at the community as our lab, as a place to learn," said Wrabley, who is also a chair for Pitt-Johnstown’s Division of Social Sciences and Division of Business and Enterprise. "The fellows got to learn a lot, meet a lot of people, but they gave back also. The community benefited from the insight of young people, their energy, their perspective about what's important to promote in our community."
The fellows spent weeks meeting with community members and local leaders to better understand their needs and determine how funding could assist key organizations in sustaining and meeting goals. Following these discussions, the four released grant applications and, within two weeks, received 25 submissions.
They ultimately split the $10,000 among the Sandyvale Memorial Gardens and Conservancy ($7,600), Flood City Youth Fitness Academy ($1,200) and the Cambria County Library ($1,200) to help implement civic projects that encourage community involvement among Johnstown residents and visitors.
"We're very grateful for the funding and the opportunity to continue to benefit our community in a new and different way," said Ashley Flynn, library director of the Cambria County Library. "We've tried to remain engaged with what's going on in our community and pivot to meet needs as they change. We know there's a strong push to keep this area attractive and appealing both for people to want to stay here and to move here, and this funding will give us the push we need to target that demographic in a way we haven't had the opportunity to do before."
For Burgan, the award to Flood City Youth Fitness Academy, a nonprofit that supports children ages 18 and under, held special significance.
"At a young age, you need good mentors in your life," said Burgan, a senior journalism major. "These children go to this place, are welcomed with a smile, and get three meals a day. It might seem small, but it makes a world of difference to so many families in the area."
Flood City Executive Director, Oscar Z. Cashaw, Sr., thanked the fellows for not only selecting his organization, but also volunteering as tutors for a week when they were short staffed. The money, which will cover costs for tutoring and recreational supplies, was a “surprise and a gift,” he said.
‘Born to make a difference’
As they developed the program, the fellows decided to call the grant “Born to Make a Difference,” based on history relayed to them by the Murtha Foundation board vice president, Ed Sheehan Jr.
"He told us Congressman Murtha's grandmother always said to him 'You were put on this earth to make a difference,' and that resonated with all of us," said Updyke, a junior communications and creative writing major.
Each student said they felt especially passionate about engaging community youths and bridging generational gaps — a mission close to Murtha's heart and civic engagement strategy.
"Young people are such an underutilized demographic in Johnstown," said Caron, a senior environmental studies and geography major. "Many people have written off this generation as being entitled and not caring about the future, but the millennials and Gen Z generations care the most. They understand that if we want to prosper and have a future that we can sustain, be proud of and bring children into, we need to work."
The self-governance the fellowship allowed was also, to an extent, intimidating for each participant.
"We were able to shape how we wanted the fellowship to look," said Swihura. "It was a bit overwhelming at times, but we handled it well."
The pressure was on to create a blueprint future cohorts want to emulate. But the “one-of-a kind opportunity,” and chance to make a difference for the town they grew up in far outweighed any doubts, said Burgan.
"Yeah, we're the first," Caron said. "We feel very proud of that. But we're bringing light to the voices in the community needing to be heard. It was a privilege the four of us were given this platform to encourage, inspire and empower other students to feel like their voices can be heard and that they're not playing a losing game."
— Kara Henderson