November 17, 2020 | By: Carol Lea Spence

LEXINGTON, Ky., — College can open doors to a wider world, to career opportunities or to beneficial experiences that are sometimes hard to quantify until later in life. University of Kentucky students Mia Thompson and Alexis “Lexi” Stewart are experiencing all three of those while they work with the Paintsville-Johnson County Chamber of Commerce this semester.

Their professor in the UK Department of Community and Leadership Development, Dan Kahl, fielded a call from the chamber last summer. Chamber officials were familiar with Kahl through his work as associate director of UK’s Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky.

“The Paintsville-Johnson County Chamber was in a transitional phase,” he said. “Their chamber director had taken another job early in the year, and then right after that, everything shut down because of COVID. They asked if there were any students who could help to develop social media, increase their marketing and their visibility.”

Kahl said both Stewart and Thompson were a good fit, so everyone sat down to detail what a collaboration between the Paintsville-Johnson County Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Executives and the university would entail.

“A lot of times, chambers end up being the information booth for communities. If you don’t know who to call, you call the chamber. That’s given chambers a lot of opportunities to step up to the plate and be an educator for businesses and not just how to make your business better, but also how to grow your business, how to be smart in marketing or teach about social media,” said Amy Cloud, executive director of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Executives who is mentoring the students.

Thompson and Stewart immediately recognized the importance of the job they were being asked to do. Thompson is a senior who is on track to graduate in May with two bachelor’s degrees, one in community and leadership development in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and the other in African American and Africana studies. She also has a minor in family sciences. She is serving with the chamber as an intern through the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky. Thompson is looking forward to getting a master’s degree in public policy with a focus on nonprofit and public management and policy.

Stewart, who is using her chamber work to fulfill requirements for a practicum in applied learning, is in her junior year majoring in community and leadership development. She’ll graduate in December 2021 and plans to enroll in law school in the fall of 2022.

Because of the pandemic and other coursework, most of the women’s work has been done virtually, though they try to make it to Johnson County at least once a month to meet with chamber members and to get to know the businesses there.

Neither Stewart, who is from Bowling Green, nor Thompson, a Louisville native, had ever been to Eastern Kentucky before.

“Between how pretty it is, and how nice the people are, I love it,” Stewart said.

“I genuinely feel welcome and at home in Paintsville and with every person we’ve met,” Thompson said. “I think their driving force is making sure that Paintsville, Kentucky, Johnson County, is gaining the proper love and care that it deserves. COVID-19 has really hit their town. For the small businesses, we’re trying to find ways to help their businesses persevere through unprecedented times. I almost feel like I’m already a part of that community.”

The women surveyed members to discern business owners’ needs for resources and support and their interest in particular chamber events. They’ve expanded the chamber’s social media presence and analyzed page insights and other data to reach the widest audience. In the process, they’ve helped strengthen communication and awareness between area businesses. The students also have produced several chamber events including a golf scramble in October, a virtual awards banquet, and a virtual 5K race and coat drive planned for this winter. They’ve created Membership Mondays on Facebook to highlight chamber businesses, and they’ve hosted Webinar Wednesdays with resources provided by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“I’ve held a lot of leadership positions. I held them in high school. I hold them now (at UK), but I never have felt so much like a teacher or in some sort of position of guidance as I have in planning what webinars I’m going to offer,” Stewart said.

“They’ve been fantastic to work with,” said Judy Daniel, vice president of the Paintsville-Johnson County Chamber of Commerce board of directors. “We wanted to try and give the students some real-world experience, but it’s also great to have an extra set of hands and a fresh perspective. They’ve done invoicing. They’ve written press releases and PSAs for the radio station. We’ve tried to make it beneficial for them, as well as providing an extra service for our chamber.”

Thompson said she has always wanted to have the most well-rounded college experience, and her time spent in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment has provided a host of opportunities.

“Community and Leadership Development and my professors have connected me to so many internships,” she said. “I strongly believe every college student should try to get an internship every summer. That experience and that knowledge is so profound.”

Kahl is happy with the results of this collaboration. “From a professor’s perspective, I couldn’t ask for a better learning situation, to be able to serve the community and provide important professional development skills to these students.”

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