University of Nebraska-Lincoln doubles down on commitment to rural communities

University of Nebraska-Lincoln doubles down on commitment to rural communities

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Rural Downtown street and buildings
In his strategic plan for the University of Nebraska System, President Ted Carter named rural economic prosperity as one of five areas in which, through partnerships, NU is poised to become a worldwide leader.

In Valentine, community leaders recognized it was time to refresh their Main Street corridor, which had been largely the same since the 1930s. They solicited plans for a more inviting and pedestrian-friendly Main Street, and also developed a community survey and local leadership development opportunities.

In Stratton, after new owners of the local grocery store found success in selling homemade specialty items, including sushi and curries, they looked to expand their business and found success in selling pre-packaged versions of their specialty dishes in nearby communities, too.

In Ravenna, after successfully hosting 8,000 visitors from around the world during the 2017 solar eclipse, community members began thinking about what they could do to attract not just visitors, but new residents—specifically young families and active retirees—to put down roots.

In these communities, and in many others all across the state, local leaders worked with the University of Nebraska—specifically with Nebraska Extension's Community Vitality Initiative and with the University of Nebraska's Rural Futures Institute—to make these and other important projects happen.

Extension is the most effective when our educators and specialists work closely and co-create solutions with local leaders.

Dave Varner, Nebraska Extension interim dean and director

"We felt like the University was doing everything possible to help us," said Dana Dennison, Ravenna's economic development director at that time. UNL faculty worked with community leaders to identify goals—in Ravenna's case, those included increasing community engagement and improving recreation opportunities, housing options and business culture—and assisting with establishing a map to reach them.

The Rural Futures Institute was launched in 2012 to facilitate scholarship in service to the success of rural people, leaders and communities. The Community Vitality Initiative, which was developed around the same time, placed Extension professionals in communities across the state to help address issues important to rural communities, including business development, entrepreneurship, retention of current residents and attraction of new ones.

young women looking at tee shirt in clothing shop In 2020, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln united these two entities to form Rural Prosperity Nebraska, which is housed in UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"With the launch of Rural Prosperity Nebraska, we are doubling down on our commitment to rural community development and prosperity," said Mike Boehm, NU vice president for agriculture and natural resources and IANR Harlan Vice Chancellor at Nebraska. "Both NU's Rural Futures Institute and Nebraska Extension's Community Vitality Initiative made big impacts, and this shift should allow us to be a more effective and better partner by uniting the best we have to offer under the Rural Prosperity Nebraska umbrella."

Merging these two programs will allow NU to be more strategic, focused and holistic in engaging with Nebraska's rural community leaders to advance their communities in ways that are important to them, Boehm said. Some areas of particular importance include attracting and retaining young families, developing the next generation of leaders, supporting businesses and entrepreneurs, and ensuring they have the infrastructure and services needed to grow and thrive.

The launch of the program followed NU President Ted Carter's announcement, in August of 2020, of rural community development and vitality as one of five areas of strength where NU is well positioned to be a world leader. Later in 2020, UNL announced community and economic vitality as one of eight grand challenges that the university would strive to address through research, teaching and extension.

This sends a clear message to the state's rural communities, Boehm said.

"University of Nebraska leadership understands that the success of our rural areas is critical to the success of our state as a whole," Boehm said. "It is critical that rural communities have strong economies and that the people who live there have access to services, such as local health care, as well as robust work and educational opportunities."

The Rural Futures Institute's Fellows program, in which college students from across Nebraska complete 10-week service-learning projects in communities throughout the state each summer, will be retained and expanded under Rural Prosperity Nebraska. So, too, will the Thriving Index, an economic and quality-of-life benchmarking tool that allows rural regions of Nebraska to see how they compare to similar regions across the state and the upper Midwest. The Rural Poll, which for the past 25 years has provided a platform for the state's rural residents to share their thoughts and opinions on important statewide issues, also will be part of the new program.

Under Rural Prosperity Nebraska, Extension educators dedicated to rural community prosperity and success across the state will focus their work in six areas: entrepreneurship and economic diversification; placemaking; people attraction and retention; leadership and community capacity building; regional food systems; and community engagement and accountability.

Growing existing relationships and building new partnerships with local, regional and state leaders will be key to Extension's success in these areas, said Dave Varner, interim dean and director of Nebraska Extension.

"Extension is most effective when our educators and specialists work closely and co-create solutions with local leaders," Varner said. "The best ideas to improve rural communities always come from the people who live there.

Extension can help facilitate robust conversations that spark innovation, then connect rural residents with grants, trainings and other resources that help get the job done."

Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel, an Extension professor based in Scottsbluff, will lead the Extension team working in the six focus areas. Burkhart- Kriesel has more than 30 years' experience in higher education, Extension and community development, and she's excited to put those skills to work.

"Supporting communities where they are—to help them be their best—is absolutely critical for the future success of both rural and urban areas of our state," Burkhart-Kriesel said. "As a university, we can drive success by connecting students to community issues, by using our research skills to help better understand ourselves and our changing environments, and in countless other ways."