UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
UW-River Falls student Madeline Nelson, center, shares her thoughts with Minnesota Public Radio host Kerri Miller during an event at the university Tuesday titled “What it Takes to Educate a Nimble & Knowledgeable Rural Workforce: Stories & Solutions,” part of the ongoing Rural Voice series. UWRF photo.
Sept. 27, 2023 - Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Olivia Jester felt lost among the masses. Then, before her freshman year of high school, her family relocated to the significantly smaller community of Spooner in northwest Wisconsin.
In a new location that seemingly had less to offer, Jester found more. She connected with fellow students and teachers and became involved with the Upward Bound program that led to her becoming a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
“In Ohio, I just kind of fell through the cracks,” said Jester, now a UW-River Falls senior double majoring in communication studies and psychology. “I was just another kid in my school class of 500. When I came to Spooner, people noticed me. Every teacher was like ‘Hey, it’s the new girl. Are you good? Can I help you?’”
Given that experience, Jester said she hopes to live in a smaller, rural community after earning her college degree. She isn’t alone.
Many students and others attending a Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) Rural Voice event at UW-River Falls Tuesday hosted by MPR personality Kerri Miller said they would prefer to live in less-populated places as opposed to urban locations where many people typically live because of greater job availability. The event, titled “What it Takes to Educate a Nimble & Knowledgeable Rural Workforce: Stories & Solutions,” is part of the ongoing Rural Voice series.
After decades of populations across the U.S. shifting toward urban areas, a growing number of Americans are stating a preference for living in less-populated regions. That trend is due in part to the growth of remote employment possibilities in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For an urban-to-rural population shift to happen on a large scale, rural areas will have to increase capacity in sectors such as housing and broadband capacity and will need educated employees to grow the rural workforce, speakers at Tuesday’s event said. Universities such as UW-River Falls that are located in rural regions are poised to play a key role in building that workforce, they said.
The challenges facing rural communities are complex, and the hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that UW-River Falls offers students prepare them to address those issues, said Michael Orth, dean of the UWRF College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.
“It used to be that you milked cows on the farm,” Orth said. “Now you milk the cows, but you also worry about the welfare of the animals. You worry about the environmental impact of your farm. You have to take all of that into account. Things are a lot more complex.”
Other event speakers said higher education must expand the traditional learning model to reach more potential learners. Approaches to doing so should include such actions as modifying existing degrees, creating certificate programs and increasing online learning opportunities, said Muhammad Chishty, dean of the UWRF College of Education, Business and Allied Health.
“We have to rethink the education model, what we deliver and how we deliver it,” Chishty said. “The education landscape is changing, and employers care more about skill sets than degrees.”
Many jobs that educators traditionally have viewed as being in urban locations also are possible in rural ones, especially with economic shifts that are occurring since the pandemic, said Jennifer Wllis-Rivera, chair of the UWRF Communication and Media Studies Department. Those changes enable a growing number of people to live in rural places and have jobs that traditionally have required employees to live in larger cities. She cited one UWRF grad who works for social media giant Meta and lives in the small northwest Wisconsin community of Luck.
“A lot of the jobs that we prepare our students for, you can find them in inner cities, but you can also find them in rural communities,” Willis-Rivera said. “We find ways to help students be able to contribute to their communities in ways that they haven’t thought of before.”
Speakers discussed the role businesses can play in building rural communities by partnering with education institutions. UWRF Chancellor Maria Gallo said such relationships between business and higher education are growing and can offer students enhanced educational opportunities while boosting rural economies.
“Businesses are becoming true partners in education and there is more integration,” Gallo said, noting businesses will work with students and faculty as part of the Science and Technology Innovation Center (SciTech) scheduled to open at UWRF in 2026.
Key to building the rural workforce is connecting students to the kinds of education they want, Gallo said.
“The important thing is that people have pathways to get the kind of education that they need,” she said. “We won’t have to be place bound but will be able to live in the environment we want to live in.”
Jester hopes that is the case. After graduation, she hopes to live in a small-size community and provide counseling there.
“Counseling is a big need, especially in rural areas,” she said, “and I feel like I can make a big, positive difference in a community like that.”