Building a Strong Rural Community on Campus

Tom Schnaubelt, executive director of the Haas Center for Public Service, grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. While Schnaubelt has been at Stanford since 2009, he has rarely crossed paths with others who grew up in or understood rural communities. The stereotypes he encountered did not represent the reality of a diverse rural population made up of people from disparate regional, ethnic and racial backgrounds.

“There’s a gap in people’s awareness,” he said of his on-campus interactions about rural life. “Hover states are just that for some people. They never experienced it. »

Although Schnaubelt saw this happen in his personal life, the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election showed how pervasive the schism was, as the country’s strong political divide showed close geographic ties on electoral maps.

Schnaubelt responded by asking Stanford’s Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support (IR&DS) for an analysis of the number of domestic Stanford undergraduate students from rural U.S. ZIP codes. IR&DS provided figures from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, which uses the United States Census Bureau’s definition of rural areas. The results showed that less than five percent of the student population came from rural areas, despite nearly 20 percent of the US population living in these areas.

For Schnaubelt, it was proof that rural students on campus were grossly underrepresented. To encourage more community and inclusion among rural students, Schnaubelt worked with a few students to organize a rally.

This first event was the start of a sustained effort to increase awareness of rural issues and increase geographic diversity at Stanford. The Stanford Rural Engagement Network was officially launched in 2018 as a collaboration between the Haas Center for Public Service and the Bill Lane Center for the American West, which supports research, teaching, and reporting on land and Western life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The initiative has three main goals: to increase awareness of the challenges facing national rural students, to build leadership to address these issues, and to create opportunities for greater understanding and trust between urban and rural students.

These goals are informed by a 2020 survey of rural Stanford students. One of the biggest barriers they cited after arriving on campus was feeling misunderstood by others. This combined with other factors that created barriers during the application process, such as a lack of community support and fewer homeschooling opportunities.

A coalition of students and counselors have tackled these goals in various ways. To increase the sense of community for rural students on campus, the group held social gatherings. They have focused much of their efforts on engaging with incoming students, with a meet-and-greet event for admissions weekend. When campus activities limited in-person connections, they also set up virtual “family groups,” where sophomores, juniors, and seniors could help freshmen with their transition.

To increase the percentage of rural students in the student population, the group worked with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, relaying barriers that current students initially faced when applying.

The Stanford Rural Engagement Network has also done admissions outreach through programs like Matriculate, which connects college students with high schoolers to guide high schoolers through the college admissions process. Using digital platforms, potential students from more remote areas were given the opportunity to benefit from mentorship.

The group identified an opportunity to increase awareness of rural issues by advocating for more space in the curriculum, and the group had various conversations with faculty on campus about how this could be accomplished. They also coordinated a series of events, Explore life in rural Americawith guest speakers on various topics affecting the rural community.

Rural communities received greater attention in public service work through the Cardinal Quarter team, which offered a rural scholarship – now part of the Haas Center summer scholarship program – and worked to identify more rural locations for other Cardinal Quarter fellowships.

Zac Stoor, ’22, played a leadership role in the group during his senior year. He was involved in promoting a minor in rural studies and led the project “Just Corn and Cows? Exploring the Rural Divide,” an alternative spring break trip, which exposed students to the rural divide through learning opportunities and community visits.

Originally from Crystal Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stoor understood the sense of isolation that many rural students experience on campus.

“The experience of being rural is very specific,” he said. “It’s one of often being more remote from resources, where the small community makes a big difference in your life because they’re the only ones around. These cultural differences mean that adjusting to Stanford can be difficult.

Stoor believes the antidote builds a sense of community, which not only benefits students from rural backgrounds, but also students from urban areas who have never had significant exposure to rural communities before. He feels blessed that he was able to help establish the foundations to build a sense of community for other rural students, which will continue as a campus student group.

“For me, the hardest adjustment year was the fresh year,” Stoor said. “That was when I most wanted something like this for myself. It’s gratifying to know that I left behind a community that was important to me.

Schnaubelt is also proud of the important work that has been done and the strength of the community that has evolved.

“I’ve come across a lot of funny assumptions about rurality, like the belief that people still draw water from a well using a bucket and a rope,” he said. . “One thing I’ve learned from working closely with rural Stanford students is that they challenge many of the assumptions we may have about them.”

About Keneth T. Graves

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