LINCOLN, Neb. — Over the past 10 weeks, 34 college students from Nebraska and Kansas have participated in an immersion internship program in 17 rural Nebraska communities. Known as Rural Fellows, these students worked with local leaders to improve their communities. Projects included mapping trail systems, creating a library of promotional videos for small businesses, downtown revitalization efforts, and movie nights at community parks.
“The goal of Rural Fellows is twofold,” said Helen Fagan, coordinator of the Rural Fellows program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “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 presented their projects on August 6 in a virtual recognition program.
Projects vary according to the wishes and needs of the community. At Superior, Jeanne Itetere and Kendra Vaughn created pages about the city’s history for their website. His duties included interviewing residents, reviewing 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 that emphasizes local shopping. Eighteen Arapahoe companies offered special offers, which are displayed on a personalized bingo card designed by the students. Some businesses had their most successful day of sales since they opened their doors.
Matching students with communities is quite simple: they are matched with communities whose projects require some education and experience.
Rylie Mills, executive director of the Ravenna Chamber of Commerce, found her experience working with fellows Maria Harthoorn and Olivia Otte invaluable.
“I would give them tasks A, B and C, and when they were done, I would say we have to do D, E and F,” he said. “Not only were they paying enough attention 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 interns at Ravenna is their new perspectives,” he said. “They help us think outside the box and see challenges and projects in a new light. They challenge us to think differently.”
Speaking of the program, Terri Haynes, AWARE project manager for Chadron Educational Services Unit 13, said, “It’s a great investment in manpower and creativity. The opportunity for Community Fellows to improve their leadership skills is amazing. The skills that will be used within the community to improve our boards, committees and teams will help our community for years to come.”
INTERNSHIPS AND HOSTS
This year’s program was the largest yet, more than doubling the number of student fellows and host communities as of 2020.
The 2021 fellows represented 22 communities, 21 majors, five states and four countries, Fagan said. However, no matter where they come from, many end up calling Nebraska home.
“All of these projects have shown us what local government and community are all about,” wrote Isaac Archuleta and Joel Kreifels, who served at Imperial. “You grow a connection with your neighbors and together you build a stronger, more caring place that everyone calls home.”
“One of the most important things we have learned,” wrote Clare Umutoni and Kaylee Burnside, serving at Ord, “is that people in this community have an eye toward continuous improvement to make their city a welcoming hub for those with disabilities. roots that run deep, as well as for newcomers.”
Applications to become a host community in 2022 are now open and can be found on the Rural Prosperity Nebraska website. In addition to benefiting from the fellows’ work, host communities receive leadership training and access to partnerships with state and university systems.
“We partnered with Nebraska Extension and Rural Prosperity Nebraska educators in a way that we haven’t been able to in the past,” Fagan said. “Our goal is 100 host communities and 200 students.”
With the success of this year’s program, he has no doubt that they will soon reach that goal.
Rural Prosperity Nebraska is located within the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For more information visit https://ruralprosperityne.unl.edu.