Jacy Hafer is a small-town girl, and she sees the importance of maintaining vitality in rural communities. She also sees a need to remove the mental health stigma existing in rural communities today.
“Even though mental health [awareness] is pretty widespread today, it’s still very much stigmatized in smaller communities,” the University of Nebraska-Lincoln junior says. “For a lot of people here in agriculture in the Midwest, if you work hard enough, everything’s going to be OK. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
Hafer knows of rural community life as she grew up on her family’s cow-calf operation near Dunning in the Sandhills. While some youth from rural upbringings seek the lights and life of the big city, Hafer admits she is just fine settling into a rural Nebraska community, where she feels she can have an impact.
“I am a big believer that everything happens for a reason, and I am also a big believer that God’s going to put me where I’m supposed to be,” she says.
God’s plan for Hafer put her in Chadron this summer as part of the Rural Fellows program that operates through Rural Prosperity Nebraska, a division of the University’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The ag leadership major found herself immersed in Chadron for 10 weeks with two other fellows.
Rural Fellows is a program that matches college students from across the country and even from around the world with Nebraska communities to help those communities work through problems and address issues being faced.
This past summer, 35 fellows were placed in 17 Nebraska communities. Jordan Rasmussen, Rural Prosperity Nebraska Extension educator and community lead for the Rural Fellows program, says fellow applicants are screened taking into consideration their strengths, interests and personalities to be paired with communities with needs where those traits would be most effective.
“A key portion of my work is to encourage communities to apply for this immersive fellowship, to invite these students to experience everyday rural community living, while allowing the student to leverage the skills, education and outside perspective they can bring to the projects and challenges the community sets before them,” Rasmussen says. “But this also allows the community leaders to grow themselves, to welcome these new ideas and perspectives, and ultimately shape and influence how they invite and bring others into the community.”
Rasmussen admits there is a commitment on part of the communities as the fellows are paid for their efforts, as well as are provided lodging in the community. “It is a big commitment, and oftentimes communities come in feeling, ‘Oh my gosh, do we really have the capacity to bring these students in?’ And by the time that the students are ready to go home, at the end of the experience, they’re like, ‘Oh, I wish they could stay, that the momentum is going, we’ve got these projects underway,’” she says.
If a project goes unfinished at the end of the summer or is ready to move to the next level, Rasmussen says the Rural Prosperity Nebraska team is there to support communities in their efforts, or some fellows have been contracted to assist in the completion.
Students and communities apply annually for the program. The community enrollment period ended Oct. 31, but student recruitment runs through Jan. 31, 2022. Students will go through an interview and selection process between Feb. 1 and March 31. After that, student fellows and community fellows complete self-paced virtual training of eight to 10 hours. Fellows then go through 2½ days in May of team bonding and activities, preparing them for their 10 weeks in their respective communities.
Serving Chadron-Dawes County
Hafer and her fellow fellows helped develop brochures for the Chadron public school system to be available for parents and students, “so that they were aware of all of their options for mental health support for those students,” she says.
They also partnered with the local Educational Service Unit, creating a handbook for their psychological services team, as well as helping school counselors with data collection on students so that counselors “can better gauge how to help and serve” students.
In addition to helping to determine the need and gaps for mental health assistance, the fellows also helped the Chadron community and Dawes County area tout all it has to offer, as tourism is the second-largest industry in the area, right behind agriculture.
The Discover Northwest Nebraska app was developed by the fellows and community leaders. Local businesses, citizens and people visiting the area were surveyed to get a pulse of the economic boon tourism truly brings to the area.
“That survey was really just trying to gather information as far as, are the dollars being spent in the community matching what the state is estimating, so that we can better gauge how to support that area economically,” Hafer says.
On top of the mental health and tourism projects the team worked on in the Chadron-Dawes County area, Hafer also sees a benefit that the program “really preaches diversity and inclusion. It’s simply just having a variety of ideas, perspectives and skill sets within a team and a community. So that you can cover all your bases and have a more well-rounded organization.
“When people think differently or have different ideas, sometimes there can be conflict, but that’s all part of learning how to work with other people and grow as a professional and also just really being able to appreciate other people’s perspectives and learn from them.”
Benefits of the program are a two-way street as the communities see projects completed, or well on their way to completion, and the student fellows gain valuable experiences that can lead them into their future careers.
Hafer’s experience this summer has helped set her future path. “I had a general idea [what I wanted to do after graduation] before going in,” she says, “but after that experience, I definitely know that I want to work in rural development, especially with an emphasis in mental health.”