Since 2013, students from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and colleges throughout Nebraska have spent 10 weeks over a summer working with leaders in rural areas on community-developed projects. These projects are often focused on economic and business development, entrepreneurship, early childhood development, marketing and promotion, and other areas critical to the sustained success of rural communities.
These students are known as the Rural Fellows, and they're making a big impact in the communities they serve. On average, their work results in a $28,000 economic impact per community.
The Rural Fellows program connects UNL students to community leaders all across Nebraska, and vice versa. The payoff for both communities and students is huge, said program coordinator Helen Fagan.
"The Rural Fellows program, through the student interns, connects the research of UNL faculty to rural Nebraska communities," Fagan said. "At the same time, the program gives participating students a close-up view of the leadership and innovation taking place in rural communities across the state, as well as deep, personal ties across Nebraska."
Connecting students to opportunities in their hometowns and other rural communities is critical to Nebraska's people-attraction efforts.
Up to 200 students and 100 communities will be accepted into the 2021 program—a more than tenfold increase from 2020. The increase in capacity can be attributed in part to a new partnership with the Nebraska Community Foundation (NCF), which launched its own Hometown Internship program in 2020, affording Nebraska college students the opportunity to return to their hometowns for a summer of service-learning. Ultimately, an enriching summer experience in their Nebraska communities could encourage young Nebraskans to return after college, said Jeff Yost, president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation.
"Connecting students to opportunities in their hometowns and other rural communities is critical to Nebraska's people-attraction efforts," Yost said. "Inviting bright, ambitious young people to our Greater Nebraska communities helps ensure that bright, ambitious young people opt to remain in our places, and creates a more prosperous future for the community at large. We will continue our Hometown Internship efforts within the NCF network in the summer of 2021 and appreciate the University of Nebraska promoting all of these internship opportunities to Nebraska students."
Ethan Weiche, a senior architecture student at UNL and a 2020 Rural Fellow in Ravenna, said the experience opened him up to career paths he hadn't even considered.
Weiche worked on several projects during his 10 weeks there last summer, including developing marketing and fundraising materials for expansion of the community's hike-bike trail. He also wrote grants for the local historical society, which he found particularly fulfilling and impactful.
"This experience really exposed me to grant writing as a potential career," he said.
Weiche said the experience also helped him grow his leadership skills, particularly the value of seeking input from community members with opinions that differed from his own.
"Reaching out to hear these voices makes us consider things that we hadn't considered before, therefore making the project that much stronger," he said.
Another 2020 student fellow, junior agricultural and environmental sciences communication major Rachel Williss, spent the summer in Pawnee County, where she photographed local tourism destinations, created a photo library and developed social media accounts the Pawnee County Promotional Network could use to drive tourism.
"What we've given Pawnee County is a starting point in developing their brand as a tourism destination," she said.
The Rural Fellows program is part of Rural Prosperity Nebraska, a new initiative dedicated to the success of rural communities across the state that Nebraska's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources launched earlier this year. Rural Prosperity Nebraska brings together Nebraska Extension educators, students, faculty, partner organizations and community leaders from across the state to address rural challenges and identify opportunities for growth.
Students accepted into the program are matched with projects that relate to their individual interests and field of study. Students work in pairs. Housing and a stipend are provided. For more information on the program, visit ruralprosperityne.unl.edu/rural-fellows.