Engaging with Communities for Beneficial Collaborations

On March 4-5, 50 members of ECU’s faculty and staff embarked on a transformative excursion to eight community sites across seven eastern North Carolina counties for the 7th annual Purple and Gold Bus Tour.

Every year since 2018, invited faculty and staff have boarded a Pirate bus bound for select stops throughout eastern North Carolina’s 29 counties to meet with community members and leaders. The purpose is to introduce new and seasoned faculty to the culture, geography, heritage, economy and assets of the region. The goal is to build connections, partnerships and collaborations that may have long-term benefits for the people and communities of the university’s service region.

“ECU’s mission is strongly aligned with community engaged learning, research, and public service. We are also committed to strengthening our partnerships with communities in ways that lead to regional transformation. Our faculty and staff are perfectly situated to engage with communities and work with them to find solutions to identified priorities,” said Dr. Angela Lamson, interim assistant vice chancellor for economic and community engagement,

Lamson said whether it’s assistance with grant writing, expanding access to educational or health care opportunities, collaborating in community engaged research, advancing workforce development or connecting leaders with resources, ECU is here to help.

“Some communities may not realize they can reach out to us for solution-minded partnerships. And some faculty may not realize they have the exact knowledge or skills that a community needs to succeed. That’s the benefit of this event,” said Lamson.

The bus tour is led by ECU’s Research, Economic Development and Engagement office. Staff organizers work each year to build an itinerary that shines a light on economic development, education, industry, health care, military and agriculture operations in the region.

This year, bus tour participants toured and met with leaders of the following sites:

The two-day tour gave faculty and staff participants a look at fast-growing workforce needs in the manufacturing and aerospace sectors. Environmentally focused stops illustrated the importance of estuaries, ecotourism, and coastal waterways on the environment and local economies. Other community stops helped faculty see the importance of community-based research and allowed them to gain insight into social and economic mobility pathways for underserved populations.

Organizers said they try to reach one community each year that hasn’t been included in previous tours. This was the first year the bus tour visited Onslow County.

A stop at Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune provided insight into a health care system for service members, veterans and their families. It also helped identify opportunities to strengthen access to health care options.

At Sturgeon City Environmental Education Center, faculty and staff heard the inspiring story of a community taking action to revive a once organically dead river. It also illustrated the many ways the center works with school systems, homeless shelters, and homeschools to provide STEAM education opportunities.

Many participants voiced how they were struck by the passion each speaker had for their organization.

“It was such a powerful experience, especially at the Sturgeon City Environmental Education Center, to see how the community came together to clean up Wilson Bay,” Yaolin Zhou, associate professor in the Brody School of Medicine.

This year’s bus tour participants included a mix of departments, schools and colleges with faculty from various roles and engaged in various research interests.

Some faculty noted they found the experience to be a highly beneficial networking opportunity, connecting with fellow bus tour participants they otherwise may not have met. Others said they didn’t realize so many opportunities existed in the region.

“I’ve been at ECU for 20 years and this experience has sparked fresh hope and inspiration for me about the future of ECU and eastern NC,” said one faculty participant in an anonymous survey after the event.

Some participants remarked that the bus tour should be required for all faculty, citing how the opportunity allowed them to better understand the needs, challenges and assets across region.

“It is impossible to be an effective faculty member if you have not been on this tour,” said another faculty participant.

Dr. Jessica Cooke Bailey, a new faculty member with the Brody School of Medicine, said, “I am completely enamored with ENC after the bus tour and am full of ideas for engagement with the region and with the amazing folks I met on the bus. The connections I made will undoubtedly positively impact my personal and professional development moving forward.”

“We challenge faculty each year to consider ways their research and scholarship could align with the priorities of the communities they’re learning about. We’re excited to see the transformative collaborations and mutually beneficial partnerships that arise from this year’s tour,” said Dr. Sharon Paynter, initiator of the Purple and Gold Bus Tour and ECU’s acting chief research and engagement officer.

The Purple and Gold Bus Tour takes place annually during ECU’s spring break. The next bus tour begins March 10, 2025.