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University Fights Rural 'Brain Drain' with New Program

One Texas university has launched a new program to fight the "brain drain" felt in nearby rural communities, and says it's one of a kind.

The Community-Youth Development Program is an initiative of the Center for Rural Studies at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas. Research has shown rural areas often see young people leave because of the perception that better opportunities are available elsewhere. The problem is compounded by rural areas' poverty, less-diverse economies, poor civic infrastructure, and limited educational and career opportunities, according to the Center.

The pilot program kicked off this summer with eight at-risk, low-income students. The goal was to educate them on the way their rural communities function, as well as encourage them to think about staying in or returning to their rural homes.

Students took part in a three-day summer camp, during which they completed a community mapping exercise, toured city and county offices, and explored local businesses. They were asked to think critically about local issues and develop a community project; they've planned a letter-writing campaign in support of restoring a courthouse.

Cheryl Hudec, associate director for the Center for Rural Studies, called this year "a great success" in that students provided valuable insights to community leaders, and the community has started the process of rethinking its investment in youth.

"They've begun to realize that the youth in fact do care and do want to be involved, but are often left out," she said. "Additionally, the initial feedback from the project indicates that the youth participants have begun to become more aware of the happenings and operations of their community and the many great individuals within. It is these kind of connections to the communities that lead youth to stay in or return to rural places."

The center plans to evaluate the program's efficacy by reviewing recorded conversations with youth about themselves, their futures, struggles, supports, and communities, Hudec said. Students also did photographic and written collages, and focus groups were held with their supervisors (students did four-week paid internships). Content analysis will be used to identify significant themes, she said.

The program will expand to other communities next summer, depending on available partnerships and funding. Local businesses and economic development groups helped cover the program's cost.

As for what she would tell educators who might be interested in replicating this effort, Hudec said communities can't miss opportunities to engage and invest in youth.

"The investment in the youth by the community not only promotes youth development but also promotes community development and ensures the continuation of a healthy civil society," she said.

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