Afghan artists work on a mural in their new home of Brattleboro, Vermont. The refugees fled Afghanistan as the Taliban seized Kabul last year, and put up 17 murals imitating the style of the Afghan art group ArtLords. (Courtesy BMAC)

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.

Today’s Roadmap

  • 01: Postcards: The Vermont college resettling displaced Afghans.
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: First aid, fork lifts, 5-week trucker courses.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Turning a rural town into a global community.
  • 04: Laying Seeds: How rural states are spending relief funds.

01: Postcards

When Ebrahim arrived in Vermont in February, the highly educated Afghan refugee expected to be shuffled into a hotel before immediately starting work — most likely a warehouse job, despite having spent the last decade working with NGOs and the U.S. military in Kabul.

That was the reality for many of his fellow Afghans displaced by the Taliban takeover last summer, one Ebrahim had mentally girded himself for while getting WhatsApp updates from his former colleagues now scattered across America. 

Ebrahim was surprised then when he, his wife, and children arrived in rural Brattleboro, a southwest Vermont town with around 12,000 residents. Their family and nearly 100 total  refugees from Afghanistan were immediately housed at the New England campus of the School for International Training. 

They were given clean rooms, hot meals, orientation classes, and English-language courses at the private nonprofit college, which began as the first training site for the Peace Corps in the ‘60s. 

It was the heart of winter, but locals offered them a warm welcome, with volunteers giving them tours of the city and the ski slopes. When he needed to practice his driving, a neighbor lent their car.

Volunteers stop by their apartment daily to practice speaking English with his wife, and a nearby Montessori school gave his preschool daughter a scholarship so she could attend.

“We’ve always received support from the community. If they see us on the road or downtown, we’re always greeted with a smile,” he says.

SIT’s global network has worked with refugees for decades, making them well-suited to teach across language and cultural barriers. As the college helped provide beds and education, the Brattleboro branch of the Ethiopian Community Development Council worked to connect the refugees with jobs and long-term housing.

I wrote in our last edition of Mile Markers about the new roles colleges are being asked to play in their communities, from firefighters to abortion providers

The work of SIT in Brattleboro is just another example of the varied responsibilities being taken on by higher education institutions in rural areas  … which we’ll continue exploring in a moment.

Rural Oregon students practice operating heavy machinery virtually on a BTI simulator. (Courtesy/The Roundhouse Foundation)

02: Roadside Attractions

  • First aid and fork lifts. High schoolers in rural Dufur, a small Oregon town known for its cash crops of tree fruit and weed, recently got to attend a three-week training program in heavy machine operation and other high-demand construction work. 

Why It Matters. Students began in a BTI simulator before taking to the job site with local business Crestline Construction. The Roundhouse Foundation, which backs a number of rural ed projects across Oregon, hopes the Dufur School-Baker Technical Institute partnership will become a model for the state.

  • How Montana is reaching rural students. This piece by a Montana University System administrator takes a look at how the state is serving around 40,000 students spread thin across the fourth-largest state by land mass in the country. Course sharing partnerships and technology platforms like Quottly, as well as targeted investments in remote delivery and workforce training, have been key solutions.
  • From the Marines to the factory to five-week college. Liliana Cruz began her associate degree in architecture three years ago at Tri-County Technical College in South Carolina. But when the pandemic made distance learning difficult, she and her husband took factory jobs … which they soon ditched for a five-week commercial trucking course that enabled them to make more than $100K annually.

Why It Matters. Their story, featured in the report “Getting Students to Better Jobs — and Faster,” is a fascinating look at how rural students can benefit from shorter semesters and work-focused certificate programs (the case study was funded by Ascendium, which also supports my work here at Open Campus — view our editorial independence policy here). 

The Brattleboro community celebrated Nowruz, the start of the Persian New Year, with their new neighbors in March. (Courtesy)

03: In the Sticks

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, SIT had decided to shift much of its focus from classroom learning to in-field education programs. 

That meant the Vermont campus had lots of students in the summers, but its dorms were mostly vacant through the fall and winter — making it a perfect partner for the ECDC as it tried to match employers with the refugees.

Among them were trained nurses and lawyers, who now needed to take new certification courses to practice in the United States. Skilled mechanics, who used to work on vehicles owned by the U.S. Marines, were able to make good money fixing beaters in local garages.

While the SIT-ECDC partnership is undoubtedly helping refugees find their footing, Howlett says the new Vermonters are giving the Brattleboro area a much needed boost, too.

“This town and community, we are desperate for well-qualified individuals who want to work,” Howlett says. “This has been a real shot in the arm for everybody.”

Brattleboro’s challenges are as steep as its ski slopes. Even before the pandemic, median incomes had declined by 2.5% from 2010 to 2019. Its population has dropped by a few hundred residents, yet housing prices are up as out-of-towners bought weekenders the past two years.

Ebrahim says that the new residents are happy to do whatever work they can to start, even if that means taking on more physical jobs in fields like agriculture.

However, many are trying to figure out how to restart their education or pursue new studies. And some would like to pursue trades such as electrician work, but the closest training centers are at least a half hour’s drive away.

Ebrahim hopes that the longer they stay, the more opportunities his family and other Afghan transplants will have to build long-term careers.

Brattleboro already has a global mindset due to SIT’s presence, making it a positive landing place for refugees like Ebrahim, who more typically relocate to urban areas with larger international communities and support systems. 

Howlett says the college is working with other Vermont universities to meet the community’s education’s needs. While SIT has only enrolled one refugee on scholarship so far, its impact is stretching beyond just its degree programs.

04: Laying Seeds

  • Walla Walla gets COVID relief. The community college in southeastern Washington State received nearly $655,000 in aid for low-income and high-need students, one of a number of rural schools prioritized in receiving American Rescue Plan funds.
  • North Dakota spends its dollars on online education. The state is directing its $2 million in COVID-19 aid toward scholarships for educators who plan to teach in rural areas, amid educator shortages so bad that some rural Roughrider districts are recruiting teachers from as far flung as the Philippines. 
  • Wyoming prioritizes rural ed. The University of Wyoming College of Education is partnering with CFES Brilliant Pathways (profiled in Mile Markers back in May) to help improve education rates for rural residents in the state, where only 52 percent of adults have a postsecondary credential.  

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.