Doctoral Students Serve as Psychology and Organizational Consultants to Help Restore Historic Community Landmark

Emily Barrett, assistant director of communications
An image of the Third Presbyterian Church after the fire
A view from inside the Third Presbyterian Church after the devastating fire.

One early morning last May, fire departments responded to a five-alarm blaze at The Old Third Presbyterian Church, a registered historic landmark and one of Chester’s oldest sites. The fire tore through the magnificent structure at the corner of 9th and Potter Streets, leaving the building in ruin. Only the brick exterior was spared.

When Assistant Professor Kathy Wu learned of the incident, she sensed the tremendous loss and saw an opportunity to help rebuild.

“I contacted the group who owns the structure…to partner up with them and have the students work with them directly doing consultation work, to learn more about how they can help restore the church,” said Wu, director of the MBA/clinical psychology dual degree program

While a devastating event, the building’s destruction created an opportunity for first-year students in Wu’s consulting and organizational psychology course to gain hands-on experience putting lessons into practice at the local level.

The Old Presbyterian Church before the fire
The Third Presbyterian Church before the fire. Photo credit: Susan Royce.

“The students are helping the historical preservation committee work through various problem areas and making recommendations as though they are real consultants,” said Wu.

Built just after the end of the Civil War, the Gothic-Revival style church opened in 1896 and was in service for approximately 90 years. Congregations changed over the years and, after a brief occupation by the Chester Eastside Ministries, the building was eventually purchased by the Chester Historical Preservation Committee (CHPC) for one dollar to save it from demolition in 2015.  

Prior to May 2020, the CHPC was working to create a multifunctional communal use for the space. But as

An aerial photo the church's damage
An aerial photo shows the extent of the damage. Image credit: Craig Priniski.

CHPC President Dave Guleke explains, the fire’s destruction put the group back at square one.

We were going forward taking two steps ahead then we were pushed 20 steps back because now we have to rebuild the whole building. —David Guleke, Chester Historical Preservation Committee president

Students worked in groups tasked with overseeing different project elements such as project management, funding, marketing and promotion, design and planning, and government affairs. Most importantly, students learned to conceptualize the problem of rebuilding in a community-focused way, lending to lessons about community wellness, prevention and advocacy, and social justice reform.

Students pose in front at the Old Presbyterian Church
Members of the CHPC, including Guleke (second from right), gave Airey (third from right) and classmates a tour of the damaged building.

While the majority of the interaction between the students, CHPC members, and community groups took place remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions, the project kicked off with a tour of the ruined building, putting the scope of the fire into perspective. 

“It was much more powerful to see how truly devastating the fire was,” said Meg Airey, a first-year student in the graduate clinical psychology program. “This beautiful building had rubble all over it so it was really helpful for us to see where the church used to be.” 

“Students got the real deal of what it really looked like on-site and what we were up against,” said Guleke.

First-year student Ellie Bruckner explained that the assignment offered an introduction to Chester and the program’s emphasis on civic engagement at a time when the Coronavirus had limited in-person learning opportunities, including internships.

“Since we didn’t have the practicum opportunity this year as first-years it was great to still have that connection with the community through this project,” said Bruckner, a member of the planning and design committee.

“The community engagement and service learning aspects are really important,” Bruckner added. Working within Chester afforded students the opportunity to address a real-world problem in real-time as well. 

There was something about this being a real project that made it more exciting and just having the opportunity to effect change was very rewarding. —Ellie Bruckner, first-year graduate clinical psychology student

Airey found that working hands-on with an active local committee put the classroom lessons into practice and, as she explained, “made it all the more powerful.”

The hands-on learning was incredibly valuable. It helped to solidify the didactic style of teaching that we received from Dr. Wu. —Megan Airey

After a semester-long analysis and deep-dive into the Chester environment, the students presented their extensive findings and recommendations to Guleke and the CHPC. While parts of history were lost in the flames forever, Guleke says that the students surpassed expectations and delivered actionable steps that support restoring the building back to its former beauty.

“The students were amazing. The recommendations that they put together were very professional and we really appreciate all that they did. Now we just have to act on them,” said Guleke. 

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