The problems in rural areas are varied and many—health care, employment, infrastructure, education, and more. The issues didn’t arrive overnight and will likely take major investment and generations to resolve. Nonetheless, there are a few short-term measures that can assist with some of the problems. Educators have always been innovators and schools and institutions have always been incubators. The issue is that educators are so busy dealing with the school issues they get lost inside those issues and may not necessarily see how they are working in the broader context of the community or region. I think that’s human nature. We tend to organize and compartmentalize everything—the country is divided into states, which is divided into regions, which is divided into communities, and so forth. We even do that in our schools, our personal lives, with our finances, and with just about anything else we can. I think that’s how we are trained in our math courses, in English courses (subject+verb), and history (this time period or that time period, as if they stop and start so easily), as examples, but this human nature, this training, erodes away our ability to think more openly about issues we face in rural areas.
As one who has served in higher education in rural areas of the South, and who was in part was responsible for enrollment at a small college, I once asked my sister who was the head guidance counselor at a very large rural high school why she didn’t direct more college students to me. Her response told me a lot. She said, “I spend most of my day dealing with the sheriff’s department, the department of Family and Children Services, the students who are in trouble or have serious life issues—drugs, rape, crimes.” I think it took me some time to regroup. I’d never thought about how life issues invade the school system. Certainly, schools must have experienced some of this when I had gone through school I wondered, but I had no memories of those issues with friends in school. I don’t think society was as open then as it is today, but then, I don’t think there was an expectation that a school managed lives in addition to the educational experience. My sister didn’t take social work or even psychological counseling. She had taken school counseling courses and ultimately had a leadership doctorate.
Most of those working in the system weren’t trained in those areas and though compassionate, caring educators, may not be equipped to deal with some of the issues they encounter on a daily basis. Such an example illustrates the need to keep employees in school systems up to date, not just with “education” classes, but other areas that will be beneficial to their jobs as educators. Moreover, those teachers and employees should be rewarded for their own upgrades in education to make them the best they can be and to show them they are valued in a society where most research will show they, the teachers, impact more lives than most in society, and this was true in my own experiences.
Another way in which educators can assist students, and the way in which others in higher education should assist educators in helping students, is by reaching out beyond their comfort zones to work together on behalf of students, to help them become even more successful and prepared. I will hold up one model—nursing. It’s tough for me to hold up a model like nursing when I hate being sick, hate to have blood taken, or hate medical tests of any sort, but nurses got it right and play an important role in society in general and maybe an even more important role in rural areas where health care is lacking.
For many in high school who are interested in health care, there’s HOSA. My own niece was involved in this and is now finishing her bachelor’s degree in nursing in Florida. What’s even more impressive is that technical schools/colleges that offer a LPN or related health care diploma have worked a pathway to community colleges for an associate’s degree/RN, and have, in turned, worked with colleges/universities toward the bachelor’s credential (and beyond into master’s and doctoral). Interestingly, a nurse, who can play a role in a school system (teaching, public health, etc.) could at the same time, play an important role in the community, not just with parents of children, but with a regional hospital in seeing patients and using “telemedicine.” I can think of no other program that has paved such pathways from high school to higher education, but this should be a goal for all in education. Paving pathways could assist students earlier in identifying areas of interest, and such could also assist families in saving money from a student dashing off to a college where the student isn’t a fit, changing majors multiple times, and taking a bunch of courses that won’t transfer, leaving them feeling like failures even when they aren’t failures at all.
Some critics would argue against my suggestion—that not all higher education is designed toward the market or employment—and I agree to an extent. As one with a Humanities doctorate who taught writing and literature for over twenty years, I have often had a tough time arguing students should explore liberal arts education before finding their interest, but I do believe that it is our ethical responsibility to assist them with internships, volunteerism, or service projects that are related to areas in which the liberal arts exists. Plus, with new changes at the federal level in financial aid, no longer will “irrelevant” courses by paid for using aid. By engaging students in these sorts of activities in higher education, we can reach back to the high school students, get them interested, recruit them to areas of interest, and enable them to see the relevance of education in general.
Keeping education relevant is a battle that competes with twenty first century technology (virtual reality, X-box, cellular) and one in which we are currently losing. By integrating technology and more importantly taking practical and pragmatic steps in this direction cannot only enhance the education environment at multiple levels, but can enhance rural communities and keep talented students from becoming part of what has been termed the “brain drain” phenomenon, which further hurts rural areas.
Bio: Niles Reddick is author of the novel Pulitzer nominated Drifting too far from the Shore, a collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and a novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in eleven anthologies/collections and in over a hundred and fifty literary magazines all over the world including PIF, Drunk Monkeys, Spelk, Cheap Pop, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review, among many others. His new collection Reading the Coffee Grounds was just released. He is the Dean of the University of Memphis at Lambuth and COO for Lambuth and Millington. His website is www.nilesreddick.com