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Communities Welcome Rural Futures Institute Student Fellows
Nebraska Ag Connection - 05/24/2019

Nebraska communities are welcoming University of Nebraska, St. Louis University and Washington University students to work, serve and live for 10 weeks. Chadron and Grand Island as well as communities throughout Custer and Garden counties are hosts to Rural Futures Institute (RFI) Student Fellows and two mentors in each area have been elevated to RFI Community Innovation Fellows.

Together, students, community innovators and faculty will work on important community-defined projects that include community marketing, workforce development, early childhood programming, mental health care access, entrepreneurship and strategic communications. The RFI Fellows will also earn their Inclusive Leadership Development Certificates through individual coaching sessions with diversity and inclusion researcher and consultant Helen Fagan, Ph.D.

"For several years RFI has earned impactful, tangible outcomes by placing high-capacity students with community leaders throughout Nebraska, but this year's pilot of RFI Fellows incorporates a critical leadership transformation element for the future -- inclusion," said Connie Reimers-Hild, Ph.D., RFI interim executive director and chief futurist.

Age, gender, race, ethnicity and experience are all elements that leaders must continue to understand and explore to create welcoming, innovative environments, said Fagan who serves as director of leadership engagement for RFI.

More specifically, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, minority groups contributed more than half of the population growth in 16 (two-thirds of all) of the 24 counties in Nebraska that had population gains during the 2000s. In 74 Nebraska counties the majority population decreased, while the minority population increased.

"This trend is likely to continue," Fagan said. "We need to help our communities and our students prepare, so we can all lead together in a way that fosters innovation. That means astute intercultural awareness and the ability to create and lead diverse teams. By elevating Community Innovation Fellows, we are helping create leadership capacity that is essential for the future of our state."

Alyssa Ehler, political science and agricultural economics major at the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, is working with Sandra Barrera Fuentes, Nebraska Extension educator with the Community Vitality Initiative, to plan and implement events and campaigns for Latino businesses in Grand Island.

Ehler, who grew up in Omaha, said university students have the responsibility to explore rural communities.

"Students have the ability to fight the brain drain plaguing rural communities," she said. "The University of Nebraska brings in students from all over the country and the world. Each of us brings a unique perspective that can help Nebraska thrive, which in turn helps our University thrive."

And, with political will high, students and residents are ready to make positive, collaborative change said Sandy Montague-Roes, Director of Western Community Health Resources in Chadron.

"Communities are ready for action," she said. "Engaging communities in the planning and voice of issues and solutions is the initial step to meaningful engagement. This pilot program with the Rural Futures Institute is a purposeful way the University is creating action out here in western Nebraska."

Extended details available at

RFI at the University of Nebraska leverages the talents and research-based expertise from across the University of Nebraska system on behalf of rural communities in Nebraska, the U.S. and around the world. Through a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, RFI encourages bold and futuristic approaches to address rural issues and opportunities. It works collaboratively with education, business, community, non-profit, government and foundation partners to empower rural communities and their leaders.

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