Courtesy: College of Menominee Nation

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 biweekly newsletter about higher education and rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: Surprising skill gaps in northern Wisconsin.
02: Roadside Attractions: A story of two Texas women.

Before we dive in this week, I wanted to let you know that now through Dec. 31 donations of up to $1,000 are triple-matched. If we raise $20,000 in donations from readers like you, Open Campus will receive $40,000 in matching funds this year!

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 01: Postcards

All things considered, it’s probably better to realize you’re afraid of heights while on a virtual ladder rather than standing atop a real one.

That was the realization for at least one student in the Bowler School District north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a district where 50 percent of students come from the surrounding tribal communities and 70 percent qualify as low-income.

Simulating life as a construction worker is one of many ways the district is exposing students to different job paths from an early age. Starting in middle school, Bowler students can now take online courses through Core Learning Exchange, with virtual reality headsets giving them glimpses into a wide variety of careers. 

It is all part of a partnership between the National Indian Education Association, Core Learning Exchange, the Bowler school district and the College of Menominee Nation, a tribal community college, funded in part by a two-year Catalyze Challenge grant.

Together, they are working to help teach construction skills and award certifications to students from the Menominee, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Ho-Chunk nations.

The NIEA is leading the work, crafted to capitalize on the historic strengths of the rural community still dominated by its historic tribal-owned lumber mill, which processes the lumber from more than 224,000 acres of Tribally Forested land.

“The community realized what resources it had on hand and how vital outsourcing is for community growth. But we don’t have the workforce to repair, or build houses,” says Diana Cournoyer, the executive director of the National Indian Education Association and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The grant has also helped the school purchase a trailer that serves as a mobile construction lab, traveling the region while allowing students to work with trained instructors to do repair work around town. 

It’s easy enough to talk about addressing skill gaps in rural communities. But programs like this reveal non-obvious challenges when actually doing so, both in a specific cultural context and just from the under-discussed realities of rural life.

There are, at times, cultural differences: If somebody dies, they might have to go to ceremony, and some employers may not be understanding without being educated about those customs first.

Lack of access to consistent transportation is a roadblock in many rural areas, as would-be workers sometimes missed their shifts because a sibling or parent had taken the family’s only car for the day. 

Seemingly simple things, like writing a professional email, or picking up a phone call from their boss, can feel foreign to Gen Z workers who prefer texting from the smartphones they’ve had since childhood.

Local employers noted that there are also generational gaps about basic tool knowledge, with some students never having picked up a hammer or screwdriver. And their field research didn’t just reveal the ways that the students needed to grow — it also showed that sometimes the teachers need to be taught, too.

“The kids loved the VR; everyone wanted to experience the simulations. Unfortunately, a few of the teachers struggled to accept this experience as a core learning model. They participated in the training, but it was hard for some of them to see it as anything more than just an add-on,” Wise says.

She said some teachers treat VR as an after-thought: a reward for the kids after they got through the book learning rather than embracing them as a key part of the transition into more career-connected learning curriculums.

Teachers are still adjusting to teaching to workforce development, Wise says, describing it as the transition from “‘I’m teaching science for the sake of teaching science’ to ‘we need to teach science as a platform for future career work.’”

When trying to address skill gaps, universities and colleges are quick to crack open the books, dust off the course list, add some new classes. 

However, programs like the one being conducted in northern Wisconsin are revealing that some of the gaps are far greater than expected … and that some obstacles aren’t always obvious from afar.

“Scalability for a lot of our Native communities looks different. It’s not always a replicable model. This community, in particular, was pretty ripe for success because all the core partners were collectively brought in,” Cournoyer says.“It’s been very successful because it has truly been built from a community standpoint.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Tracking two rural Texans. “To survive, Texas community colleges have to prove their worth. But residents of this rural north Texas town are questioning what’s right for them,” writes Sneha Dey, our pathways reporter at our partner the Texas Tribune. Her intriguing profile documents the education journeys of two Vernon, Texas residents.
    • Sneha’s story is one of two projects our local reporters recently completed with additional support from the Rural News Network and Ascendium. Molly Minta at our partner Mississippi Today wrote about the Mississippi county with one of the lowest education attainment rates in America. 
  • Nearing record-breaking enrollments in North Dakota. The Grand Forks Herald reports that three of the state’s small-town colleges have seen significant enrollment increases over the past year, nearly setting records in the process. Part of the reason may be a growing appreciation for community colleges and what they provide to their local communities.
    • “I was adamant,” she said. “I was like, ‘mom, no … I’m totally against Lake Region. I don’t want to,’ and then I changed my mind and it’s been the best decision of my life that I stayed here, honestly.”

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