Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing
On Track to Make a Difference
Students in professional writing course help Potlatch depot group win nearly $25,000 grant to finish renovation
If you’ve lived in Potlatch for any length of time, you’ve probably stopped noticing the two-story red building just on the edge of town.
It probably just feels like it’s always been there — and it has been for more than 100 years.
The first commercial building in Potlatch, the depot was constructed in 1906 by the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway Company. It served the Potlatch Lumber Company and the largest white-pine sawmill in the world.
The sawmill came down years ago, but the depot remained, falling slowly into disrepair. But for the past 15 years, a local nonprofit has been slowly working to restore the depot from the outside in.
This summer, thanks to a group of University of Idaho students and a grant from the Inland Northwest Community Foundation, the building renovation will finally be completed.
Constructing a Program
The grant came about through English 440, the capstone class for students in the English department’s professional writing emphasis in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. The course focuses on client-based writing. Teams of students are paired with an area nonprofit organization and spend the semester researching and writing a grant that fits the organization’s needs, as well as working on marketing, social media and other projects.
Jodie Nicotra, associate chair of English who has been rebuilding the professional writing emphasis program for the last few years, constructed the client-based focus for the course.
This year was an unofficial launch of the redesigned emphasis, introducing two new courses and a more structured organization. In addition to traditional literature and rhetoric classes, students in the emphasis can select from courses in environmental, technical, science, online and business writing, as well as interdisciplinary classes in social psychology, public relations, political science and history.
The client-based writing capstone course offers a place for students to apply all those skills in real-world environments.
“It’s important for students to be able to operationalize all these things,” Nicotra said. “The capstone course puts everything they’ve learned to the test.”
Director of Composition Diane Kelly-Riley has taught the course since 2013 and works to connect the students with organizations from across the Palouse. Over the past three years, students have partnered with about 20 nonprofits.
“The service-learning component of the course gives students the opportunity to be able to apply what they have learned in real-world settings,” Kelly-Riley said. “It really is a great laboratory.”
Choosing the Depot
In spring 2015, a team of three students decided to partner with the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway History Preservation Group. Ryan Richey, a senior from Mullan, said the group thought a project with trains would be interesting, and when they learned the scope of the Potlatch train depot renovation from organization founder Jim West, they really got on board.
“When I found all the things Jim was doing, I got really excited about it,” Richey said.
The team — which also included Carissa Thomas and Nathan Romans, who both graduated in May 2015 — searched for a grant that matched the railway group’s goals. The Inland Northwest Community Foundation (INWCF) was a slam-dunk.
West, who works for the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) in Coeur d’Alene, created the preservation group in 1998. It purchased the depot from the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad in July 2001 and was awarded an initial $450,000 Transportation Enhancement grant from ITD in October 2001. Exterior work was completed in 2007, and interior renovations began in 2010.
The bottom floor of the depot now includes a museum, the BlackBird at the Depot gift shop and a small entertainment venue. Upstairs, the preservation group is creating a business incubator with room for 12 businesses.
In addition to identifying the INWCF grant, the students wrote a portion of the application for West. After going through the three-stage application and interview process, the depot group was awarded $24,900. It received another $5,000 from the Idaho Heritage Trust. The funds are being used to complete the upstairs renovation, which should be finished in late spring.
The depot still needs a bit more funding before the effort will be completely wrapped up: West hopes the annual Idaho Gives rally at One World Café on May 5 will push the group over the finish line and raise enough money to finish the upstairs restroom.
“The grant helped us see the light at the end of the tunnel,” West said. “I’m very grateful for the students’ help.”
The students are just as grateful as West for their involvement in the project. None of the three had ever written a grant before. It’s a skill Richey is already putting to other uses: He’s helping a friend write a federal grant in the hopes of starting a small business to provide high-speed Internet to the Mullan area.
More importantly, it gave the students confidence that their degrees from UI would lead to jobs in the real world.
“It was a valuable learning experience,” Richey said. “I finally felt like I had something I could put on my resume and feel good about. It gave me confidence for the future.”
The course puts a lot of focus on “soft skills,” Kelly-Riley said: problem solving, communicating across audiences, how to research and locate information, how to work with a client to meet their needs. All vital to most career fields.
“A lot of students really, especially at the end of the class, have some things that they can be really proud of. I see it as a great transition to move into the ‘real world’ — to get that kind of experience,” she said.
Fellow teammate Carissa Thomas, who graduated with a degree in journalism and emphasis in professional writing, agreed.
“It was a eye-opening experience,” said Thomas, who is currently working as a teacher in her hometown of Yelm, Washington. “Looking back now, it definitely opened my eyes into the financial world and into nonprofit organizations. I’d definitely consider that as a career path.”