Students Find Opportunities in Rural Communities

Written by: Gillian Klucas

When Tanner Nelson left his tiny hometown of Bertrand in south central Nebraska for Lincoln and a college degree, he didn’t believe anyone raised in a city would embrace rural life as he did.

Now a senior at the University of Nebraska−Lincoln, he’s convinced rural communities are on the verge of a comeback as young people discover the numerous opportunities available in rural America and a lifestyle that allows room to grow.

After decades of decline as farms consolidated and people moved away, rural communities throughout the Midwest are making their communities more attractive to young people like Nelson, who are eager to make an outsized difference.

“I love rural Nebraska,” Nelson said. “I believe rural communities are the future of Nebraska, and I think you’ll start to see a reverse trend. I’ve found a lot of people in Lincoln who would love to live in the country. People are moving back.”

Tom Field, director of UNL’s Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program, said the change is evident. “When you talk to rural leaders, there are communities doing things that you just wouldn’t predict could happen,” he said.

He cites Ord, Nebraska, as one town with strong leadership development, high levels of civic engagement and blooming entrepreneurship. “Their advantage is the fact that they, as a community, decided they were going to be something special,” he said.

Nelson said he plans to return to a small town and start his own business. He’ll find a place that actively supports local businesses and where he can get enthusiastic about becoming involved as a community member.

For Brianna Meyer, a nursing student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Kearney, working in a small town will give her a greater opportunity to shine and grow. At a larger corporation, young employees start at the bottom and work their way up, she said. Working in a smaller organization or business, provides more opportunities to take on and explore a variety of responsibilities.

“In a small community, if you can show that you can be professional and you’re serious about your job, they’re going to throw more things your way,” she said. “If you really want to make a difference, you’re more likely to be able to do it in a small community.”

The ability to one day raise a family in a safe, friendly environment like the one she grew up in in Wolbach, Nebraska, is also on her mind, she added.

Alyssa Dye, a recent UNL graduate, didn’t plan to go back to small-town life after leaving Alliance, Nebraska. Her dreams were global, seeking to make a difference through international development. But after spending a summer in Neligh, Nebraska, for an internship through the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska, she’s completely sold on pursuing a career that includes rural development. A small town would expand her options, not limit them, she said.

Technology is opening new possibilities. Communities with a reliable digital infrastructure can support an office doing business anywhere in the world.

“I totally believe that rural communities are incubators of innovation and entrepreneurship,” Dye said. “Now I understand the leadership role that I can play in a rural community and being invested in that community. You can have a business in a rural town, but still have a global impact no matter where the physical office is.”

But finding just the right town can be difficult.

University of Nebraska’s Rural Futures Institute recognized the need to connect students with rural communities and businesses. Taking a cue from traditional career fairs, the institute is hosting the first-ever Rural Opportunities Fair October 21st, at UNL’s East Campus Union. Towns actively seeking young talent and organizations with jobs in rural communities will be there to talk with students and showcase what they have to offer.

Greg Ptacek, Neligh’s director of economic development, said he’ll be there. “The fair is a chance to get in front of students and say, ‘There is opportunity for you in rural Nebraska and here’s why we have a great quality of life.’”

“We’re saying, ‘We have the jobs available, and we need you.’”

Information regarding the upcoming Rural Opportunities Fair is available at: rfc.nebraska.edu/opportunities