For the past 10 weeks, 34 college students from Nebraska and Kansas have participated in an immersive internship program in 17 rural communities across Nebraska.
Known as Rural Fellows, these students worked with local leaders on improving their communities. Projects included mapping out trail systems, creating a library of small-business promotional videos, downtown revitalization efforts and movie nights in community parks.
“The goal of Rural Fellows is twofold,” said Helen Fagan, coordinator of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Rural Fellows program. “First, we want students to immerse themselves in rural communities to gain real-world experience as leaders and problem solvers. Second, we want communities to benefit from the new perspectives and proactive application of education that these students bring.”
The Rural Fellows will present on their projects Aug. 6 in a virtual recognition program.
Projects vary based on a community’s wants and needs. In Superior, Jeanne Itetere and Kendra Vaughn created pages on the city’s history for its website. Their tasks included interviewing residents, sorting through the museum’s archived files (one of which was 99 years old) and creating videos illustrating the city’s history.
Haley Burford and Kennedy Kriewald helped organize Small Business Saturday in Arapahoe, an event emphasizing shopping locally. Eighteen Arapahoe businesses offered special deals, displayed on a customized bingo card designed by the student fellows. A few businesses had their most successful sales day since opening their doors.
Pairing students to communities is fairly simple — they are paired with communities whose projects require certain education and experience.
Rylie Mills, executive director of Ravenna’s Chamber of Commerce, found his experience working with fellows Maria Harthoorn and Olivia Otte invaluable.
“I would give them tasks A, B and C, and when they finished, I would say we need to do D, E and F,” he said. “Not only were they paying attention enough to know what D, E and F were, but they had already completed D, E and F. Finding people and staff who can do that is priceless.”
Amber Ross, director of the Ravenna Economic Development Corporation, agreed.
“The biggest benefit of having fellows in Ravenna is their new perspectives,” she said. “They help us think outside the box and look at challenges and projects in a new light. They challenge us to think differently.”
Speaking of the program, Terri Haynes, Chadron’s Educational Service Unit 13 AWARE project manager, said: “It is as a lot of bang for your buck in manpower and creativity. The opportunity for Community Fellows to improve their leadership skills is amazing. Skills that will be used within the community to better our boards, committees and teams will help our community for years to come.”
This year’s program was the largest yet, more than doubling the number of student fellows and host communities from 2020.
The 2021 fellows represented 22 communities, 21 majors, five states and four countries, Fagan said. Yet no matter where they come from, many end up calling Nebraska home.
“All of these projects have shown us what local government and community is all about,” wrote Isaac Archuleta and Joel Kreifels, who served in Imperial. “You grow a connection with your neighbors and together build a stronger, caring place that everyone calls home.”
“One of the biggest things we have learned,” wrote Clare Umutoni and Kaylee Burnside, serving in Ord, “is that the people in this community have their eyes set on continual improvement to make their town a welcoming hub for those with roots that run deep, as well as for newcomers.”
Applications to become a host community in 2022 are already open and can be found on Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s website. In addition to benefiting from the fellows’ work, host communities receive leadership training and access to partnerships with state and university systems.
“We are partnering with Nebraska Extension and Rural Prosperity Nebraska educators in a way that we haven’t been able to accomplish in the past,” Fagan said. “Our goal is 100 hosting communities and 200 students.”
With the success of this year’s program, she has no doubts they’ll reach that goal soon.
Rural Prosperity Nebraska is housed within the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Learn more.