"They were surprised," she said. "They didn't think I would consider living here — that I would call their community home."
Mirissa Scholting, a senior agricultural leadership major in the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, along with 22 of her peers from the University of Nebraska spent 10 weeks in rural communities across the state this summer.
Scholting, originally from Louisville, Neb., and her partner Haley Ehrke, a senior agribusiness major, worked, served and lived in Box Butte County, providing additional perspective, energy, capacity and — to her surprise — confidence.
"For some reason they needed to be reminded that their community is attractive to soon-to-be young professionals like us," Scholting said.
"And I learned that, while we hear, 'Oh, these communities need help,' they are actually thriving. We need to show people that, tell people what these rural communities, these people, have to offer. That was a lot of what our projects focused on, but I'm also taking it personally and telling people that Hemingford and Alliance are real options."
Created through the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska in 2014 by UNL professors and partners, RFI Student Serviceship brings students from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, UNL and the University of Nebraska at Omaha together with communities of place and practice to work on future-focused, strategic projects that embrace opportunity.
It has resulted in 60 NU students experiencing, not only what it means to live and work in a rural community, but what it means to lead in a rural community.
As for the 25 Nebraska communities that have participated so far, the serviceship experience provides a "great bridge" from the university to rural communities, said Chelsie Herian, executive director of the Box Butte Development Corporation and Scholting and Ehrke's lead mentor. Distance is tough, but this program overcomes that, she added.
"We have so much to learn about their age demographic," Herian said. "We just don't get that perspective very often, especially in such a focused way. So while they were accomplishing some of our ideas, I was also digging into what they look for in a community, a place of work, how they want to be engaged, where our community and businesses should reach them. All of this is essential to how we plan for our community to recruit and retain residents in the future."
Herian is currently leading Box Butte County through Marketing Hometown America, a community education program focused on recruiting and retaining new residents. It was created through RFI funding in 2013 by Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, associate professor and Nebraska Extension Community Vitality Specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, Neb.
The program engages communities through small groups to have more people involved and more voices heard. Designed as a tool to create dialogue that moves toward action, Marketing Hometown America can be the spark to help a rural community look at itself and the recruitment and retention of new residents in a new way.
Not only did Scholting and Ehrke help facilitate the process and participate with their perspectives, they also executed several of the outcomes, creating four short films, producing a community commercial, taking thousands of photos and auditing the community's websites for improvements.
"We will be launching their videos soon, but we are already feeling the impact of Mirissa and Haley's time here," Herian said. "I'm pretty sure they hear from someone in the community every day, because we have built genuine friendships, but businesses and community organizations are also anxious to release what they have produced."
Overall, a 2015 study of serviceship estimated a $15,790 average economic impact per community. This year's projects included strategic plans looking three to 20 years forward, event planning and execution, data collection and analysis, tourism initiatives and much more.
The effects of a serviceship experience are many, said Helen Fagan, RFI director of leadership engagement.
According to her initial research of the 2018 experience, 100 percent of lead mentors responded that RFI Serviceship is a positive reflection of the University of Nebraska's commitment to rural communities, that they would like to participate in serviceship again and that being a lead mentor helped them grow as a leader. In total, 100 percent of the 2018 student participants believed that they grew as a leader and a professional, that they had a positive impact on the community and the people they met and that the experience was so positive they would recommend it to their friends.
As a professor who teaches leadership and leader legacy, Fagan said watching these students make an impact by taking their education and putting it into practice is exactly what makes her work fulfilling.
"Every time I look at the outcomes from one community, I am in awe of the results, as I realize this is just one of 12 experiences we created this summer," Fagan said. "The efforts of these students, the mentors, the host teams and all of the community residents who made this meaningful — that's the efforts of thousands of real Nebraskans with our students resonating to thousands more that are touched because of this work.
"But we're not surprised by these outcomes because we understand the energy of these students, the grit of these mentors and the potential of these communities. Together, anything is possible in rural Nebraska."
Program details, community outcomes, student video presentations and more available at ruralfutures.nebraska.edu/2018serviceship.