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Can virtual welding help solve the density challenge?

Courtesy: Finger Lakes Community College

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: Can virtual welding solve the density challenge?
  • 02: Roadside Attractions: The roadblocks to equity in AR/VR.
  • 03: In the Sticks: Race, and faith, for Muslims in West Kansas.

01: Postcards

The lack of density in rural areas is a critical challenge for colleges. It affects not just how students get to class, but whether those classes exist at all, as many courses struggle to reach the minimum enrollment to offset the cost of running them. 

“You have to find students to be able to teach,” says Robert Nye, the president of Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, N.Y. 

While the problem is simple, the answer is anything but. Nye’s students are scattered across various upstate towns, and don’t always have access to a car. Even if they are near a bus route, students who work full-time may not have time to wait for it.

With that challenge, Finger Lakes decided to try something different: Rather than try to get more rural students to campus, the college decided to take their classes to their students through its Growing Rural Infrastructure Together (GRIT) program.

GRIT students are able to take virtual classes at local schools, libraries, and workforce development offices, with a class “coach” visiting each site in-person every few sessions.

“You can create that density, but also create that personal connection,” Nye says.

The hybrid learning model began with three off-site centers in 2017 and has now expanded to six nearby towns, including Bloomfield, Clifton Springs, Geneva, Macedon, Newark, and Penn Yan. 

The program began with an advanced manufacturing course, which wouldn’t seem to lend itself to virtual instruction — except Finger Lakes also gives students Augmented Reality devices to train on, including instructional blowtorches for welding training.

“They don’t have to go to factory A or factory B to practice,” Nye says, and virtual welding also reduces the amount of metal, equipment, and venting the college needs to provide.

“Traditionally, when you have a student doing a particular weld, you don’t know it’s good until it’s done … with virtual welders, it tells you when you’re off, so you can correct yourself in the middle of the weld.” 

Community colleges were hit the hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic, with rural campuses seeing an average of a 9.9-percent decline (urban campuses saw even worse drops, at 10.3 percent). 

But Finger Lakes had a much smaller drop: Its 1.5-percent decline in full-time enrollment in fall 2021, down to 5,145 students, was the lowest among any of the Empire State’s 30 community colleges.

Nye credited the GRIT program as an example of one small way to improve resilience at rural colleges. That hybrid manufacturing class was able to enroll 12 students, many of whom likely wouldn’t have been able to participate in a typical campus program.

Using augmented reality and distributed classrooms gives Finger Lakes flexibility to rapidly respond to the needs of the various communities it serves. 

The college can add new courses on demand, so long as they have enough interested students and at least a semester’s notice to try to hire the necessary instructors, Nye says.

“The beauty of GRIT is that you don’t have to have eight people in one spot. If Clifton Springs wants a history class, and you can get Bloomfield high school and Macedon library to say they have enough people, we can teach it.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Will we see equitable AR/VR though? Brookings published a report Tuesday exploring how rural students, as well as Black and Hispanic students, may have greater trouble accessing augmented and virtual reality tech (spoiler alert: every example of higher ed AR/VR adoption in the report was at a college in a major urban environment). 

Why It Matters: Funding, faculty skepticism, and faculty interest remain key challenges for rural and other minority-serving institutions. Among the report’s suggestions was bridging the digital divide through federal grants and state partnerships, although that’s often easier said than done, as I reported for Open Campus earlier this year.

  • Rural Indians head overseas. Rurality, of course, is hardly just an American experience. In India, rural students are increasingly setting their horizons abroad, a phenomenon once only common for middle-class Indians. Almost a million Indian students were heading abroad in early 2022, twice pre-pandemic levels, Reuters reports, and a number of them are families from poorer rural areas.

Why It Matters. The overseas education market is estimated to more than double to around $80 billion by 2024, according to a 2021 report from Red Seer consultancy. And while Americans question the value of their degrees, the return on investment for rural Indians “is very, very good,” Piyush Kumar, South Asia head for foreign student placement agency IDP Education, told Reuters.

Yasmeen Saadi, a Daily Yonder fellow, while reporting on an alpaca farm in Missouri.

03: In the Sticks

I recently wrote about how the School for International Training in Vermont, primarily known for training the Peace Corps, had become an unlikely home to Afghan refugees displaced by the takeover of Kabul.

Rural areas offering new homes for refugees and other new Americans is hardly a novel trend. It was a theme I saw regularly while traveling to every state in 2017, from Somali farmers reshaping Maine’s aging-out agricultural industry to Hispanic and West African factory workers reviving an Oklahoma panhandle factory town

Still, I often wonder what happens after the cameras leave town. Do immigrant communities thrive in their new rural homes? If not, why not?

Yasmeen Saadi, a Daily Yonder rural reporting fellow, was able to partially answer that question with this week’s article on the growing Muslim community in Garden City, Kansas.

Saadi wrote about community organizer Halima Farah and some of the hundreds of immigrants who have settled in the remote West Kansas city, with many arriving to work at the Tyson meatpacking plant that opened there in the ‘80s. 

In 2006, that Muslim community grew with a surge of immigrants from Somalia, Burma, and Ethiopia— more recently, Garden City has also been a safe haven for Afghans fleeing the Taliban. 

Those newcomers have gathered in a makeshift mosque for years, pooling together $20 donations to pay the rent. Zoning issues and discriminatory sellers have made it difficult to find a suitable long-term solution, Saadi reports. 

The community’s inability to even acquire land for a cemetery of their own — the closest is in Wichita, three-and-a-half hours away — resonated with Saadi when she heard about it on a Catholic Charities conference call.

According to Islamic traditions, bodies should be buried directly in the dirt without a coffin, and should face the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, located in modern-day Saudi Arabia. 

“I’m Muslim myself, and I made the connection that having the cemetery was something very important for the community,” Saadi said.

Many transplants have found it difficult to continue their college studies, as they typically don’t qualify for in-state tuition. 

Despite having few resources, a local African grocery store has become a hotspot for collaboration and community. One of the main apartment complexes housing Muslim residents is another gathering place, even after it was the target of a bomb threat a few years ago

“When that happened, a lot of people outside the Muslim community did come to them and make sure they were OK. That was a point they emphasized,” Saadi says. 

I’ve written before about some of the mistakes I often see in reporting on rural education, including my own. Thankfully, Saadi has given us an article that offers a complicated rural community the nuanced attention it deserves.

“A lot of people just forgot and don’t know that those communities exist,” says Saadi, who is from Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. “I’m personally not from a rural town, and didn’t know how much diversity there was in some of those places.”

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