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Professor Giving Rural Youth Platform in New International Role

An American professor who's leading an international effort on rural community, leadership, and youth development is making education a top priority.

Mark Brennan, an associate professor of rural community and leadership development at Penn State University, has been tapped as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's chair in rural community, leadership, and youth development. The position is being co-hosted by the college's Center for Economic and Community Development and its Office of International Programs.

Only 18 UNESCO chairs are in the United States, and only four worldwide are devoted to youth issues. This chair position will be aimed at addressing the specific needs of rural youth and communities.

Brennan launched his UNESCO Chair program by speaking at a two-day symposium last week, in which he talked about the need for research, teaching, and programs that will help rural youth. Nearly half of the world's population resides in rural areas, and more than 90 percent of all rural residents live in less-developed regions, according to Penn State.

I caught up with Brennan and asked him a few questions about his new role. Here's some of what he had to say:

What do you see as one of the major challenges for rural K-12 education—both in the United States and across the world?

Often, people see no usefulness in education. It has come to be seen as a burden and chore by many. The reality is that we have forgotten why education is important. We have distilled its usefulness down to a few small outcomes, like getting a better job. Our curriculum have become increasingly narrow in focus, not better preparing our students, but limiting their intellectual development.

We've told ourselves and our children it is something that we need, but stopped understanding why. Not so in the developing world, where even young children are excited, honored, and enthusiastic about the prospect of going to a one-room schoolhouse with next to no resources. They understand what we have forgotten. Education is the single most important thing we can attain. It is the single greatest gift that we can give. And if we have one chance of having better lives, it all comes through the doors that education open.

What, if anything, do you hope to do in this chair role that will change/affect rural K-12 education?

Major projects are:

—Identifying best practices for youth and community development worldwide.
There are lots of people doing great and effective work worldwide. We are going to begin a long-term research program to identify these best practices, in all locations, but with a strong focus on rural areas. Another really cool part of this research is building partnerships. We work to build capacity and partnerships through North-South (northern and southern hemisphere) and South-South partnerships we build regional capacity. Through the UNESCO Chair program, we will link organizations in 25 countries to share resources, best practices, and expertise.

—Global Educational Programming
We are planning a global educational program focusing on leadership and community building across the life span. We will offer courses in leadership skills, community capacity building, entrepreneurship and small business development, positive youth development, conflict mitigation, and many others areas. Through a variety of distance education technology, if a citizen of this planet has access to the internet, to an internet café, or even a cell phone they will be provided with college courses and instructional materials. This educational experience will range from free courses to graduate degree programs.

What is one thing that you think American educators or communities should be doing for rural youth but aren't in terms of education?

We need to link education with rural community development. The impacts, outcomes, and potentials of community are real, tangible and measurable. Strong communities are more resilient and adaptive and less exploited. They connect residents, institutions, organizations to each other. They promote stability, have less crime, and increase local well-being. Finally, they increase involvement in local decision-making and participatory democracy.

Tremendous things happen when people care about each other and the place they live in. This is not an idea. This is not a plan. This is fact. Strong communities equal stable, civil, and just societies.

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