Investing in Rural Students

By Rachelle Kuehl

April 24, 2023

Photo caption: Students and counselors enjoy games on Virginia Tech’s Drillfield during SEE VT 2022.

As an ice breaker at the beginning of a workshop I attended recently, the facilitator asked us to go around the room and say what, as a child, we had wanted to be when we grew up. I pictured myself in second grade, looking up at my sweet teacher at the chalkboard and imagining following in her footsteps. During all of high school and most of college, I tried to think of what else I might want to do instead of teaching, but I didn’t come up with anything that called to me more. I’m very happy that I became a teacher, and I do think it was a great career for me during the time I was lucky enough to do it, but when deciding to pursue teaching in college, I did worry a bit—and sometimes still wonder—whether I might have chosen something different if I had realized what other options were out there.

Because of the internet, students today have greater and easier access to information than I did when making college and career decisions. That’s an advantage, to be sure, but they might feel similarly stymied for the opposite reason—that there are just too many options to sort through. Either way, it’s the real, hands-on learning experiences that help a person know whether they love a certain field. With geographic and economic challenges, it has been well documented that rural students have fewer opportunities to come into contact with people from different disciplines who might show them what it would be like to be a systems engineer, a technical theatre director, an occupational therapist, and so on. Even more, rural students have fewer chances to envision what these careers might look like in their own communities, which could fuel the sense that they need to go elsewhere to have a career that really excites them, or that they may have to “settle” for a job they aren’t as passionate about to be able to stay in a place they really love.

Lots of university-based summer camps have been developed with the intention of exposing students to a college campus and helping them envision what they might learn and explore if they were to matriculate there. Because we know and appreciate the value of place-based educational experiences, we (at the Virginia Tech Center for Rural Education) have developed a special residential summer camp for gifted middle school students that centers place in all of its learning activities. We call it the Summer Enrichment Experience at Virginia Tech, or “SEE VT,” because we want students to be able to see themselves in higher education. At camp, students spend half the day in STEM-focused sessions that include field trips to different sites on and off campus, labs led by VT scientists and science students, and small-group projects aimed at helping students consider solutions to systemic challenges that we, as a society, really need them (or, at least, some of them) to grow up and figure out how to solve. The other half of the day is devoted to exploring place through the humanities, with community members representing various artistic professions leading them through activities in music, movement, theatre, art, and poetry.

Back in second grade, or even in college, I hadn’t envisioned the career I have today as a rural education researcher, or that part of my job would be to look at the systemic nature of education to help other educators and policymakers understand the small and large shifts that can be made throughout the entire system to lead to the outcomes we want to see. If we are concerned with economic revitalization in rural places, we need to make concerted efforts to invest in students who might grow up to innovate and implement changes that lead to that revitalization.

For one thing, we need to help districts advise high school juniors and seniors about their post-high school options. In a remote rural district in West Virginia I visited recently, that means preparing an “everything you need to know” binder of information for families—when to file the FAFSA, deadlines for various scholarships, places to apply for post-high school apprenticeships, even when and where to order graduation announcements. Before that, though, we need programs like SEE VT to help students envision different career possibilities in time for them to choose high school courses that will position them to be competitive in the college application process. Earlier still, with programs like ours looking to serve a community’s most gifted students, we need to widen the notion of “giftedness” so that teachers don’t overlook recommending elementary students to enrichment programs because the narrow, traditional view doesn’t take into account the ways giftedness might manifest differently in rural students. That is, we need to understand that rural students may be less likely to score in the very top percentile groups in tests of achievement and aptitude because their opportunities to learn may have been limited by community geography and/or poverty, but their intelligence may be evident in the ways they connect with nature, tell stories, understand mechanics, and so on. But, because at least some of the weight for gifted identification will rest on those types of tests, we need even earlier interventions that will “prime” students to think in those ways (recognizing patterns, categorizing, making associations among words, etc.).

Looking further ahead from senior year, we need to prepare colleges and universities to understand the needs of their rural students. That means having plans in place to ensure retention of students through graduation, like creating rural student affinity groups, providing targeted advising, and making sure financial assistance can sustain them through the four-year degree and, for careers requiring graduate education, beyond. Importantly, to bring things full circle and increase the possibility that students will apply what they’ve learned in college or other postsecondary programs to their home communities, we need to work with community groups to create networks of internships and apprenticeships that will serve as pathways into careers that will generate solutions to the challenges rural places face. These careers certainly do include teaching—we need talented, dedicated teachers—but also it is vitally important to help students see the “what else” and guide them through all the various steps that will lead them where it is they want to be, with “home” being among the most viable, promising possibilities.

Rachelle Kuehl is a 2022 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow and a research scientist in the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. This post first appeared as a column in the Spring 2023 newsletter for the American Educational Research Association’s Rural Special Interest Group. We are very grateful to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for providing generous funding for the first two summers of SEE VT. To donate toward sustaining SEE VT in future years, click here, or contact us at to discuss funding ideas and opportunities.

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What “Being from the Country” Taught Me: Reflections on the Phenomenon of My Rural Education

By Charles L. Lowery, Ed.D.

April 4, 2023

Where I grew up and went to school, being rural meant “being from the country.” And, for me, being from the country carried with it the meaning of education. Often people think of rural as a synonym for unrefined, rustic, redneck—all meant to denote uneducated. But in my experience, this was far from reality. Whether I was in the garden helping my grandpa pick tomatoes or in the pasture helping my father corral cattle, I was engaged in learning. This was not a specific type of learning, that is, it was not singular in nature. It was an ecological education. The cow pasture was what my grandfather called his church where he felt closest to God—but for me, I called the same land my classroom where I encountered various intelligences and the ways of knowing the world. Yes, it certainly had the connotations of bucolic ranches and rolling rows of watermelon and potatoes, of people given to a simple approach to living and a common-sense orientation. But the land was also geography and geology, the science of agriculture; and the people were engaged in a praxis of active reflection and thoughtful intellectual activity.

The rurality of being from the country prepared me for school and for learning, and it became foundational to life and living. Flows and erosion seen in the rivers and creek beds on our land became metaphors for economics and human migration patterns. It was there I learned about measurement. Multiplying length times width to find area while helping my father building chicken coops transferred quickly to math class. As did learning about volume by calculating how many bales of hay would fit in the haybarn and learning the Pythagorean theorem by watching my grandfather square the corner posts while fencing in a new section of pastureland.

Ecology and ecosystems were witnessed firsthand down at the cattle pond, or while taking walks down the backroads and out by the nearby bayou. My fundamental exposure to ecological systems theory was when as a child I experienced the insects and the unseen of country organism, the earth teeming with life through mutualism and symbiosis, cooperation and commensalism. Crows and cranes, toads and turtles, moss and meadows—all part of my world of life and learning. The biodiversity of the country taught me the importance of the diversity of humanity, and not only the importance but the necessity of it. Everything came together in an interdependent dance of life and cycles of the seasons.

Similarly, being from the country also taught me what it means to love one’s country. Because what does it mean to love one’s country? To simply love the land? Well, yes and no. The pastures, the mountains, the rivers, the soil, the trees, all the natural resources, these are part of the country as a rural landscape and all part and parcel of our country as a national concept. But loving our country also means that we love the people within the political boundaries of the country. Community, county, state, the country as a whole—these are all really made up of people. Regardless of skin color or background or socioeconomic class, and regardless of political affiliation, the people of this country are the country itself. The plural “we” in We the People makes that clear.

That said, we cannot forget or ignore that loving one’s country also means respecting the rules, regulations, and responsibilities that delineate the inherent and necessary connections of the people to the land. Our founders equated the right to own property with the pursuit of happiness. As Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote over a decade ago in The Atlantic,

Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” for the word “property,” which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that “property” was too narrow a notion.

Property—land ownership—was too narrow a notion, yes. As Wendell Berry wrote, “In the mind of Thomas Jefferson, farming, education, and democratic liberty were indissolubly linked.” But Franklin’s suggested revision still spoke to a connection that existed between contentment and the land, between one’s happiness and security and the perimeters and parameters of the earth in which we dwell. In 1950, psychologist Perry London asserted,

Insecurity is a springboard to national and international discontent, and thus to war. The true clue to the elimination of that evil lies in the equal right to the land which God has given all [humanity]. The recognition of this right is the greatest single contribution that society can make to the physical and emotional well-being of humanity, and to the individual happiness and security of [people].

In a 2019 study by Furuyashiki and others, it was found that “‘forest bathing’ (Shinrin-yoku) has positive physiological effects, such as blood pressure reduction, improvement of autonomic and immune functions, as well as psychological effects of alleviating depression and improving mental health.” Another bit of evidence that there exists an inseparable bond between the people and the land in which and on which they live.

If so, we should each be custodians and stewards of the land and by extension of the happiness of all citizens. But to accomplish this we have to recognize some of the basic tenets of ecological education that country living and learning taught me.

Capitalism depends on economic exchanges, such as money for merchandise and manufactured goods. These are fundamental Producer – Consumer interactions. Words like commerce, currency, and competition imply flows of capital and depend on human reactions and responses (more so than human reasoning and responsibility at times). Religion is framed by ecumenical and ecclesiastical exchanges. Repentance and forgiveness; giving and receiving; sacrifice for salvation. Morality for immortality. Similarly, the various fields of computing and construction take into account exchanges related to systems and subsystems of energy, electronics, equipment, equations, and engineering.

But just as systems of cooperation and companionship demand ethical and emotional exchanges, country-based learning reveals a system of ecological exchanges. Being from the country means life is a choreography—a Relationship of Interactions much like a dance on the sawdust-covered floor of Mother Earth herself. The ecological interdependence between a human being and fellow human beings, and between those human beings and their environment—the land, the resources, the local capital—is foundational.

The educative nature of rurality is in its interconnectedness and interdisciplinarity. The farmer knows that the seed sowed in the spring is the harvest reaped in the fall. Likewise, the botanist knows that asparagus, rhubarb, and wild blueberries are types of rhizomes that are a single organism connected through a complex underground rhizomatic system. These well exemplify the interconnected nature of country life.

Austrican physicist, Fritjof Capra stated, “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.” If so, then the obverse side of the coin must also true: We cannot learn the benefits of life until we recognize that you and I and the land are also inherently bound together. If Capra sees the interconnectedness of problems, so too can we discover the advantages and strengths in our interdependence. As Whitman, a scholar of rurality in his own right, mused,

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,

Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far

Whitman’s notion of “physiology from top to toe” speaks to our democratic interdependence as citizens. This again is a great lesson I learned from growing up country.  So many see rural life as a mode of independent living when in fact the lessons of country living teach us the complete antithesis. Too many associate rurality with isolation and insular living. But rurality—the country—really means being connected and democratically dependent on one another. In Democracy and Education, Dewey stated,

From a social standpoint, dependence denotes a power rather than a weakness; it involves interdependence. There is always a danger that increased personal independence will decrease the social capacity of an individual. In making him more self-reliant, it may make him more self-sufficient; [but] it may lead to aloofness and indifference. It often makes an individual so insensitive in his relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone—an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering of the world.

Even the major rivers of our land do not exist without numerous and significant tributaries that contribute to their continued existence and force. The majestic birds do not thrive without the lowly insects. Just like the Farm-to-Market highways of rural East Texas connect the towns to the backwoods communities, like the one I grew up in, we are connected to one another in our connectedness to the land. Our rights are unalienable and, when we pay attention to what nature teaches us, so are we. So too should we recognize our responsibility to care for the source of our learning—the land. Our lives are not independent, isolated existences, but instead, as my rural education taught me, we are social animals, ecologically bound, and in desperate need of one another, to care for one another and to care for the land that sustains us. Only in acknowledging and accepting this interrelatedness can we work together to remediate the suffering of our world.

Charles L. Lowery, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the School of Education at Virginia Tech and a proud product of Possum Walk, Texas. He provided the photos for this post.

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