A concept of the SEED Innovation Hub expected to open this year in Farmville, Va. (Courtesy Longwood University)

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: In Farmville, Va., reversing the field of dreams.
02: Roadside Attractions: Addressing childcare gaps in Montana.

01: Postcards

From his days serving in the military to his time working on Wall Street, Chris Kukk was fascinated by how people come together to build innovative things.

That fascination continued when the New Englander moved from western Connecticut to serve as the honors college dean at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. There, he saw up close how folks in rural areas had plenty of creative ideas, but few places to bring those novel ideas together. 

“It’s a different type of innovation happening in rural areas, one that hasn’t been fully tapped yet,” the Bronx native says, describing it as “a kind of farm sense, like a MacGyverism” that emerges out of necessity.

“In New York, if I needed a part, I could go to a neighborhood store on the corner or, god forbid, walk three blocks. But in most rural areas, there’s no local hardware store within walking distance. Farmers especially have to come up with innovative ways to fix a broken tool right then and there.”

That led Kukk to wonder.

What if there was a way to take the products made from that “farm sense” and more readily turn it into the type of knowledge that could be patented and sold to national companies like Home Depot or Lowes?

What if rural communities could create hubs that bring together such ideas, and potentially lead to building new local businesses as well?

The idea germinated, and led Kukk to work with regional economic and academic leaders to launch the SEED Innovation Hub in Farmville. 

Even before the group had a place to meet, the idea took off simply from talking to people — for instance, one computer science major was interested in drones, and so Kukk was able to match him with a drone manufacturer who became a donor. 

In another case, a former dropout student wanted to enter the audio business. He found an unlikely client: A local airport pilot who wanted to install an audio system in his plane. The two worked together through the hub, and now the student has started a brand new business that is doing so well he was able to hire his father and his uncle.

“It was the opposite of ‘Field of Dreams,’ Kukk says, referencing the 1989  movie. “Instead of saying ‘Build it and they will come,’ we seeded the area by asking employers and students what they wanted, then started those entrepreneurial programs even before we had a building.” 

Longwood will soon be getting its building, with local, state, and federal funds combining to create a multi-million dollar restoration of a 10,000 square-foot space that previously held the local Barnes & Noble. 

It’s a fitting touch for Kukk, who compares such innovation hubs as the libraries of the future, places where people can bring information together and build more than they could by themselves.

He sees the hub integrating everything from sewing machines to welding stalls to serve the community’s changing interests.

“Entrepreneurial thinking shouldn’t just be a capitalist way of thinking. It helps you solve problems and issues that are good for all of society,” Kukk says.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $1.6 million grant to help Longwood work with three other universities — Angelo State University in Texas, Independence Community College in Texas, and Richard Bland College in Virginia — on creating similar hubs.

Contributing some of the best practices they’ve created, plus learning findings from the other universities, the partners are using the grant to find new ways to use higher ed to increase socio-economic development in rural areas. 

“For us, it’s to show that people who are working farms, in rural areas, are innovative and giving them a platform to connect with venture capital that can make their dreams a broader reality for people around the country,” Kukk says.

02: Roadside Attractions

Leigh Ann Courville, the director for the Early Childcare Education program at Salish Kootenai College, visits the infant classroom on Thursday, May 1, 2024. Photo by John Stember.
  • Combating Montana’s childcare conundrum. The Montana Free Press, through our local story partnerships, writes about how higher education leaders and policymakers are working together to address childcare shortages that are keeping tens of thousands of Montanans out of the workforce.
    • Want to go behind the scenes? Education reporter Alex Sakariassen will talk with Free Press editor Brad Tayler in a free virtual event at 12 pm MST on Wednesday, May 29.
  • To address rural teaching gaps, is it time to loosen credentialing? Nine rural California counties that struggle most with student success and teacher recruitment are in education deserts, according to a recent UCLA study. Allowing community colleges to offer K-12 teaching credentials could help.
  • Place-based stories from rural teachers. From preparing wild game and growing their own food to painting local scenery, students within the regional hub network of the Rural Schools Collaborative used small grants to creatively explore their communities, with the help of three enterprising teachers within the nonprofit’s Young Educators’ Advisory Council. 
  • Improving the rural college experience, from Wisconsin to North Carolina. The Daily Yonder reports that seven rural-serving community colleges were chosen to participate in an initiative to improve student experiences by the nonprofit Achieving the Dream, which hopes to help address low college enrollment and persistence rates across rural America.
    • Also in North Carolina, Brianna Atkinson, our reporter at partner WUNC, wrote about a $500 million effort for research-based startups working in the state’s rural areas.

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