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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