Rachel Williss, a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Rural Futures fellow in Table Rock, takes a photo of a town mural. Photo courtesy of Haley Heiden.

For Savannah Gerlach of Beatrice, growing up in a small town made her aware of the possibilities and power rural communities have in Nebraska. 

Gerlach, one of 17 fellows this summer for the Rural Futures Institute, is learning how to keep rural communities engaged and forward thinking.

The institute’s goal is to prepare students and rural communities for the future by providing students the opportunity to work alongside community leaders in areas such as entrepreneurship, inclusion, marketing and communications. 

In Wahoo, Gerlach is working on a communications guide for the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce. 

“We’re working with my community leaders to find a way to get messages and important information to every audience and every member of the community,” said Gerlach, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Part of the communications plan includes a social media campaign called H.O.P.E. 2020 for Wahoo, a town of about 4,500 people in eastern Nebraska.

“We capture stories of people in the community who have gone out of their way to provide hope throughout the community,” she said. 

H.O.P.E. stands for Helping Others Prosper Everyday.

In Table Rock, Rachel Williss of Papillion, a junior at UNL, is using social media to promote tourism in Pawnee County. Since the county is so close to Lincoln and Omaha, the town of 270 people doesn’t get a lot of recognition. Williss said her work can change how the small town is viewed by tourists.

“It’s the perfect little place for a day trip,” she said. “There’s a lot of museums. There’s campgrounds and a bunch of scenic places to see that people wouldn’t normally know about.”

Kenneth Edwards of Humboldt, a graduate student at UNL and community innovator for the Rural Futures Institute at Pawnee County, said Williss will leave them on good footing once the summer fellowship ends.

“We do have a lot of beautiful things here, but we haven’t utilized these tools that we have and so Rachel’s been able to guide us through that and get a plan together to promote (the town),” he said. 

Mark Balschweid, the interim executive director at the Rural Futures Institute, said the institute was created to provide a place where all University of Nebraska campuses were engaged and to deploy as many of the resources across the system as possible.

Some of these resources came in the form of grants to faculty and others for research, extension and teaching. However, the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications department at UNL suggested another type of resource: students.

Balschweid said the fellows program was first proposed as a way “to provide students an opportunity to utilize leadership skills they were developing in coursework and use those (skills) in communities, working alongside community leaders.”

In Auburn, Emma Hoffschneider of Burwell, worked with the Auburn Developmental Council to create a strong marketing campaign for a local effort to adopt provisions under the Local Option Municipal Economic Development Act. The 1991 law, known LB840, authorized cities to collect and appropriate local tax dollars for economic development.

“We’re doing research on how it has impacted the 72 communities across the state of Nebraska that have LB840 in place and whether or not it would be something that Auburn would benefit from,” Hoffschneider said.

Hoffschneider hopes that her work with marketing LB840 will help the community make a well-informed decision. 

“With the research we’re doing with LB840 and creating that marketing campaign, I hope that eventually Auburn will be able to bring it into the community and the impact that LB840 will make will be huge,” Hoffschneider said.

To watch a video on the Rural Futures Institute fellows, click here.