BOONE — Students in Donna Akers’ business writing classes at Appalachian State recently put their writing skills to use in helping businesses with marketing efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Akers started teaching at Appalachian State University in Boone in 1999 as an adjunct instructor in the department of English. During the spring 2020 semester, which prevented App State students from returning to campus after their spring break in March, Akers altered her classes’ final project to revolve around community outreach.
According to Akers, the altered final project came about from hearing about what her students were going through, such as job losses, during the spring semester of remote learning.
“It seemed like ... a healing mechanism both for the community and for the students,” Akers said. “It seemed like ... to be able to focus their energy and their frustration and not being able to do anything to help (into a project) afforded them the opportunity to help in a substantial way.”
Participating students could choose between marketing campaign methods, including social media and case studies. Students who didn’t opt to partake in the altered assignment were given projects from the textbook to complete, Akers said.
Some students found it easier to focus on their hometowns for their projects since they couldn’t return to Boone, while others reached out to Boone businesses to put together business marketing strategies during the pandemic.
Students Dinah Rubner, a sophomore, and Colton Brookshire, a junior, designed a website that compiles information about High Country recreational activities to encourage community members to enjoy time outdoors during the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
One student, Christian Lynott, a junior, decided to focus on Boone’s Makoto’s Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar. She designed a social media plan to tell the restaurant’s story and keep the community updated on its staff and procedures during COVID-19-related closures, Akera said.
Other student projects included businesses and organizations such as Food Lion of Boone, Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina in Winston-Salem, Short Sugar’s Pit Bar-B-Q in Reidsville and other nonprofits, according to Akers.
“I wanted to help, I wanted to harness their energy, their intelligence and their good hearts,” Akers said. “I wanted this community and their communities … to see that college kids aren’t selfish, spoiled kids … They do want to help — they just haven’t been asked to or afforded that opportunity as a practical project.”
Akers said that she didn’t have many expectations for the project, which made some of her students uncomfortable. Since students had different businesses and chose different project mediums, there weren’t guidelines such as paper lengths or word counts.
“I wanted to see something substantial and helpful,” she said. “Most of the projects exceeded my expectations and earned an A.”
Akers noted that this project wouldn’t have been the success that it was if not for the support of her colleagues in the English department, specifically mentioning the support provided by Leo Flores, Donna Lillian and Jesse Blackburn.
“I’ll always be grateful for the support that they provided us,” she said.
When Akers moved to Boone in 1993, she had already developed both love and admiration for the Appalachian Mountains, having grown up in Abingdon, Va., which is about an hour away from Boone. As her love for history coupled with her talent for writing, Akers began publishing books, including “The History of Blowing Rock” and “The History of Boone,” in 2004.
As of the spring of 2020, Akers was the published author of 12 books published by Arcadia Publishing that focus on southwest Virginia and the High Country region. Her most recent book, titled “North Carolina Ski Resorts” was published in 2014.
Akers is working on two projects: a historical mystery book related to Abingdon, Va., and her first novel.
“‘I’m researching another history book on the Abingdon area related to some of the historical mysteries there, such as the cave system underlying the region, lives of slaves and African Americans in the region, poor farms and Revolutionary and Civil War mysteries. I’m also working to finish my first novel. It’s about a sassy Appalachian hairstylist in her 40s who rebounds from divorce and fundamentalist Baptist upbringing, reinvents herself as a private detective and becomes smarter about the world and men.”
Akers currently lives in Boone with her two sons, one who is a senior at UNC Chapel Hill and the other a junior at Watauga High School. Aside from English, she also holds degrees in community planning and historic preservation from the University of Virginia and anthropology from James Madison University.
Akers’ Facebook page, where she posts regular updates about her ongoing projects, can be found at https://www.facebook.com/DonnaAkerswriting.