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Lessons learned in covering rural education

Khadija Ali cuts a cabbage at New Roots Farm in Lewiston, Maine (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

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A bimonthly newsletter about the role of colleges in rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

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Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: What I have learned from covering rural education.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: Texas plans broadband rollout for 1M+.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Transportation transforms education in Colombia.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: India sees expanded tech education and training.

01: Postcards

It’s been seven months since I joined Open Campus as the nation’s only reporter dedicated solely to covering rural higher education.

Today, I explore some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, based on my interviews with hundreds of students, educators, experts, and advocates.

We rarely cover education in rural areas.

In preparing this newsletter each week, I make a habit of searching for any “rural” mention I can find in my inbox full of just about every education email out there.

Despite my efforts, fishing through that sea of content reels in about as much as my hapless fisherman father did each hot Georgia summer — that is, next to nothing (sorry, dad).

The greatest challenge in rural higher education coverage is simple: We don’t do enough of it.

What rural students need isn’t always obvious.

When I started, I assumed that rural areas had few resources to enable pandemic-era learning, only to discover that many had abundant access to laptops and tablets.

Access to high-speed internet, though, is a different story. While national reporters had written about the money allocated to rural broadband, few had dug deeper. 

When you do, it becomes clear that hidden barriers remain, which keep rural students from actually benefiting from all those efforts.

Efforts to expand access have been stymied by grants that don’t take affordability into account. 

Meanwhile, billions in rural broadband funds are being held up by faulty FCC maps that can’t answer the basic question of who has the internet, and who doesn’t.

There are lots of resources for rural students, and universities are (slowly) starting to do better in reaching out to them. 

However, those students need more access to mentors and guidance counselors, who can help connect them to those opportunities.

Reporting on rural education can’t stop with the opportunities presented by additional funding and initiatives. It must interrogate whether or not those things actually deliver on their promises.

We don’t do nearly enough to spotlight the diversity of rural America.

If you read national coverage of rural communities, you might assume that just about everyone is white and conservative. 

However, the story shown in the stats isn’t so cut and dry. Just over half of rural people are Republicans … which means nearly half, well, aren’t

It’s true that a little over three-fourths of rural people are white, compared to about 58% of the general American population.

But the country is surprisingly diverse in some unexpected rural spaces.

There are Somali immigrants revitalizing an aging-out farming industry in Maine, the oldest and whitest state in the nation, and pipeline fights launched from the right in rural Georgia and Nebraska.  

Pro-choice West Virginians with a sweet tooth for vegan food are part of this nation, as well as West African, Latino, and Asian Oklahomas credited with saving factory towns and turning them into surprising melting pots.

Consider that more than 90% of HBCUs are in 10 (largely rural) Southern states, and a large number of Hispanic-serving institutions are in rural regions too

They are communities with unique strengths and distinct needs. And when we assume a rural America that is solely white, conservative, and decaying, we miss them.

Consistent transportation is not a given in rural America.

I’m embarrassed to say that I truly believed everyone in rural America had at least somewhat steady access to a vehicle.

It was difficult for me to imagine anyone living without regular transportation in places where a simple gas station or grocery store can be at least a 15 minute drive.

Yet there are plenty of rural areas where residents have little to no way to get around — places like Middlesboro, Kentucky, where one student couldn’t take the ACT because she didn’t have a driver’s license or state ID.

Either would have been difficult to get: her parents lived in public housing and didn’t own a vehicle, making it tricky to get to the licensing office a half hour away.

Transportation remains a challenge for rural students attending college, too. 

Only 57% of community colleges in America are transit accessible, according to the SHSF public transit map published in 2021.

However, that study also reported that an additional 25% could be made reachable through strategic investments to extend bus lines.

02: Roadside Attractions

  • The RCSE podcast is back! Season 2 of Matt Newlin’s Rural College Student Experience podcast is out with its first episode, which shares takeaways from The Rural Summit co-hosted by Partners for Rural Impact and Education Forward Arizona in April. Guests include Chase Carson, a recent Eastern Kentucky University graduate, and Dreama Gentry, Founder and CEO of PRI. Listen now. 
  • Texas hopes to connect 1 million households to broadband. State Comptroller Glenn Hegar recently unveiled the state’s connectivity goals for the next few years, after Congress allocated $500.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding, as well as $100 million from the infrastructure act, for Texas broadband efforts.
  • Rural educators make the case for vaccination. Three members of the National Rural Education Association wrote for the Daily Yonder about how avoiding COVID-19’s worst symptoms through vaccines could help education efforts in rural schools. Their work comes as the pace of rural vaccinations has flat-lined in the last two months.

“The disruption COVID has caused in the classroom is profound. My current second-graders have never experienced a normal school year,” wrote Susanne Honeycutt, a teacher in Walker County, Georgia.

The view from a Medellin cable car. (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

03: In the Sticks

Greetings from Colombia! 

I’ll admit, I came here for a wedding. Yet just a few days into my South American sojourn, I’ve been surprised by how much the experiences of Medellín reflect the educational challenges I’ve been covering in rural America.

For decades, Medellín was split, between those connected to opportunity in the city’s flatter foothills to those disconnected from it while living on the valley’s steep inclines, in barrios built on top of each other.

Poverty and violence was the result, particularly for those poorest mountain communities which became key corridors for the nascent cocaine trade to the United States in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Colombians living in steep barrios like this one often were disconnected from opportunities in Medellín, making them more likely to turn to crime (Photo/Nick Fouriezos)

If you are of a certain age — or an avid fan of Netflix’s Narcos — you may be familiar with Medellín from its early ‘90s moniker: The Murder Capital of the World.

At one point, an average of 16 people were murdered a day in Medellín, or nearly 6,000 residents killed in a single year (for comparison: the all-time high in Chicago, which led the U.S. in killings last year, was 974).

Medellín was still gripped by crime and poverty nearly a decade after the 1993 death of “the criminal,” the famed cocaine trafficker and murderer whose name many locals refuse to use today.

But in the early 2000s, authorities stormed the city center, which had become an explosive cocktail of crime and poverty after the market burned down decades before. 

Then, city council members did something surprising: They leaned on education and transportation to reinvent the city, emphasizing “education with dignity” while opening, as one person described them to me, “big, sexy, libraries.”

Those new libraries doubled as community centers and temporary shelters for those displaced by the crackdown on crime, with the city offering free education and rehab for those who wanted it.

With those public spaces erected, Medellín began working to connect its more remote residents to economic opportunity — building a gleaming, modern metro system and soaring cable cars to reach previously disconnected citizens.

It’s hard to convey how meaningful these connections were to locals, who mention them often.

“It united the formal with the informal,” one communications major said. “You’ll see trash in the streets, but we don’t trash the metro. It’s a symbol: the branch that got us out of the bad times.”

Colombia still has a ways to go. It has the second-worst income inequality in Latin America and one of the highest wealth gaps in the world

But Medellín is emerging from its narco capital reputation to become one of the safest cities in South America, reclaiming its title as “The City of Eternal Spring,” a nod to its abundant flora and, now, newfound hope.

And to think, it was all propelled by the practical act of connecting remote residents to education and opportunity. 

04: Planting Seeds

  • Startup builds tech skills in rural India. “BringUp Education” is working with 800 students of the Sonbhadra and Prayagraj district, helping them sharpen their computer skills and teaching them how to handle and repair computers and accessories, as the Times of India reports
  • Mid-Michigan gets college prep support. A new $1.2 million grant awarded to Saginaw Valley State University will expand existing programs, such as career services, and encourage programs focused on college preparedness, access, and success. With that federal help, the university will be able to “expand our outreach into rural areas,” said SVSU president Donald Bachand. 
  • Microsoft is training rural cybersecurity experts. The collaboration with ICT Academy, “CyberShikshaa for Educators,” focuses on students from rural engineering colleges in a number of states in India, impacting 400 faculty members at 100 rural institutions and at least 6,000 students. 

If this reporting is meaningful to you, please consider donating to OpenCampus. You can also help by sharing this newsletter with your friends. They can sign up for their own copy here. 

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