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Classroom learning comes alive through service learning
Mix a batch of eager college students with a handful of rural communities willing to take a chance on new ideas, and you’ve got a recipe for educational opportunities that is making a difference for everyone involved.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Rural Community Serviceship Program is based on a concept known as service learning in which classroom lessons come alive through hands-on work aimed at meeting a community’s needs.
“These students have a passion for making a difference,” said Lindsay Hastings, director of UNL’s Nebraska Human Resources Institute, one of the program’s collaborators.
This project is funded by the Rural Futures Institute (RFI) at the University of Nebraska as one of the institute's grant projects that aims to foster creative teaching and engagement projects. The community serviceship program has placed students in sponsoring communities to do everything from organizing community festivals to developing community marketing campaigns and creating promotional materials.
“The community internship and other programs sponsored by the Rural Futures Institute can play a vital role for Nebraska because rural communities matter,” said Chuck Schroeder, executive director of the RFI. Schroeder notes that 94 percent of the state’s incorporated towns and villages have populations of less than 5,000.
The communities of Holdrege, Seward, Red Cloud, Ord, Neligh, Valentine and Kimball have hosted 14 interns in the past two summers, and Cambridge, Stuart, Brownville and O’Neill are hosting interns this summer. Students and communities both apply to participate. Students attend a three-week summer school course before heading out to their assigned communities for eight weeks.
Communities selected to participate have specific projects for the students to tackle and arrange housing for them. Students receive stipends of about $1,600 and they can earn college credit for the experience.
“These young people bring a new perspective,” said Tom Field, director of UNL’s Engler Entrepreneurship Program, a rural community serviceship collaborator. “They help a community see themselves differently.”
Often, he says, the students, as outsiders, see a better, more hopeful community than the community residents themselves perceive.
Jordyn Lechtenberg, a native of Ainsworth, interned in Holdrege in 2013, the program’s first year. Now a UNL graduate student in agricultural economics, Lechtenberg worked on a community logo and slogan for the southcentral Nebraska town. She said she sought to help Holdrege residents think more positively about what they have to offer.
Lechtenberg said the experience led to a sense of self-discovery on the part of the interns, who came to realize that, “We have a great opportunity to lead in rural communities,” which they might not have if they took jobs in a big, corporate environment.
People in Holdrege, young and old, were genuinely welcoming and valued the interns’ perspective, she said.
Community members also seemed to appreciate the image the interns presented of the University of Nebraska and the RFI.
“We were there to help the community get to where the community wants to go and not tell them what to do,” Lechtenberg said.
While many of the interns are products of small towns, that’s not a prerequisite for participating in the rural community serviceship.
Take Jeff Story, an Omaha native who acknowledged some apprehension about living in Red Cloud, whose population is just under 1,000. Story says he was worried about what people would think of him and about the community cleanup project he helped plan. The project included the task of repairing and painting a historic house that sets the tone for Red Cloud because it’s one of the first things people see when they drive into town.
Despite Story’s initial apprehensions, what followed was a domino effect. Not only did 40 volunteers show up to help, but others in the community started to engage in efforts to spruce up the town.
Story grew up in a city, but the rural serviceship opened his eyes to opportunities in rural communities, particularly to the possibility of practicing law, which he hopes to do one day. City people, he suggests, need not see moving to a small town as taking a step backwards.
“There’s something exciting, something very cool happening in rural America,” Field said. And the rural community interns are learning that firsthand.
Mary Kay is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and manages the Nebraska News Service, which provides news coverage for about 120 news organizations across Nebraska.
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