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Conference participants pitch ideas to improve rural places
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Conference participants pitch ideas to improve rural places

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Philip Sigillito wants to create a website where young people from rural Nebraska can get to know each other and connect with mentors.

It wouldn’t be a social networking site like Facebook, but rather a place where young people who often are isolated and many miles from cities can find job opportunities.

“We would help jumpstart careers for rural youth,” Sigillito said.

He was among about a dozen young farmers, agriculture advocates and others who participated in a quick-pitch contest Monday at the Rural Futures Conference, which began Sunday and ends Tuesday at The Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln.

Conference organizers selected the quick-pitch contestants from a larger pool of applicants who were interested in sharing their proposals to revitalize rural communities to conference participants. Each contestant had three minutes to present an idea.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is set to speak Tuesday at the conference organized by the University of Nebraska Rural Futures Institute.

On Monday morning, a panel of rural community advocates spoke about the challenge in helping improve rural communities.

Chuck Schroeder, the institute’s new director, said it was important to recognize the quality of life rural communities provide. He said he grew up in a Nebraska town of 600 in a ranching family that drew scientists, writers and thinkers to his parents’ dinner table.

Living in a small town didn’t narrow his perspective, Schroeder said. “It didn’t confine my view of the world.”

Several panelists stressed the need for the institute to work across academic disciplines and outside academic corridors to spur economic development and develop strong collaborations among nonprofit, government and private interests.

Shawn Kaskie, director of the Center for Rural Research and Development at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, described efforts to recruit NU graduates who grew up in rural Nebraska to come home. He said the Nebraska Alumni Association has supported the effort by providing the names of people who fit the profile.

He said the center was working to connect those potential recruits to businesses in rural Nebraska.

“We’re trying to address the rural brain drain issue,” he said.

Kathleen Tweeten, director of North Dakota State University’s Center for Community Vitality, said the center had worked to help rural communities market their strengths to recruit new residents. It also has helped one community partner with a local college to host community activities, including a Halloween trick-or-treat event.

Barry Dunn of South Dakota State University encouraged the Rural Futures Institute to not forget growing Native communities as it works to revitalize rural places.

Schroeder said he was committed to including tribal communities in the institute’s work.

“It is a challenge but also an enormous opportunity,” he said.

Tom Koulopoulos, author and founder of Delphi Group, a Boston-based think tank, emphasized the need for the institute to incorporate technological changes into its efforts to reach out to rural residents, especially young people.

“They grow up constantly connected to each other and to their devices,” he said.

Several quick-pitch contestants proposed offering loans to aspiring farmers and ranchers to help cover startup costs.

Others offered ideas to revitalize dying rural museums and community-farmer partnerships through Internet technology.

Wendy McCarty, director of the Transitional Certification Program at UNK, said her program allowed working professionals who hold bachelor’s degrees to switch careers and become teachers while they take coursework toward certification.

More than 50 participants now are teaching in 50 Nebraska communities, she said.

“Great teachers are needed to have great schools,” she said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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