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Center for Engagement and Community Development

Sociology students study rural communities and challenges they face

Written by Logan Falletti

Matthew Sanderson, associate professor of sociology, asks his rural sociology students on the first day of class, “What in rural Kansas is worth saving?” Some say their families or their farms. The majority are silent. Rural communities are facing challenges such as decline of small businesses and loss of young people to more urban areas. Sanderson teaches the rural sociology class every fall semester, and each year more students say they do not plan to return to the rural towns in which they lived.

“For generations, it made sense to get a degree at K-State and then go back, but now it doesn’t so much anymore. College-educated people are leaders – if they leave, where will the [rural] leaders come from?” said Sanderson.

The class focuses on rural Midwestern community development. Students read books exploring issues in these small towns, from disengagement and declining social groups to the changing methods of agriculture. Students discuss the issues and analyze the events that lead to the decline of small towns. But the most eye-opening parts of the class are group visits to rural areas where they interview residents.

All but one of the towns are PRIDE communities, members of a statewide program that helps towns organize to complete community development projects. Dan Kahl, instructor, K-State Research and Extension, teamed up with the class for three weeks to connect them with PRIDE groups. Members of the Leonardville, Randolph, Olsburg, McFarland, Eskridge, and Rossville PRIDE groups welcomed the students.  One group of students was received by the Director of Economic Development of Wamego.

“What we wanted to do is to give them a real experience of what it is to live and work in a smaller rural community and connect them with some people who are taking action to improve their community. Through Extension, better outreach and engagement can start earlier, and make more connections between students and community,” said Kahl.

Groups of four students visited each community and recorded their first impressions. They looked for the modern technology marker of a community website. They evaluated investments residents made in the community such as clinics and hospitals, diversity centers, and schools. Age and upkeep of buildings, roads, and public spaces were carefully recorded.

Students then met with a community member. The residents told the story of their lives in the community: if they were born in the community or what drew them there, advantages and disadvantages of living in a rural area, and their plans for the future. Janie Dunstan, a member of Randolph’s PRIDE, gave the visitors a tour of the town which included stop at the park the PRIDE group has been improving through the years. Her family moved to Randolph a few years ago so her husband could continue his education.

“Everyone was excited for [the students] to come up. We put in a lot of work over the last couple of years and we were ready to show it off. We had one ‘city girl’ [in the student group] who had lived overseas… she said, ‘I could really see myself here.’ And you felt like you’d done something good, giving her a view of this life,” said Dunstan. “I’m glad they’re looking at little-town life. These small towns need young people to come back to them, whether they come from there or not.”

Students lead an informal discussion when they returned to K-State about what they learned in their interviews and presented a formal project at the end of the semester relating their broad class discussions to issues faced by local rural residents. In the future, Sanderson plans to expand the final project to include analytical evaluations of why the towns fail or succeed and a proposition to help them stay alive. A more hands-on component might also become a part of the class.

“We want to work with people on a project they need. Can we help? How? Given [K-State’s] tools and resources, we can use knowledge we create not for just public research but to improve the quality of life for rural Kansans. I believe this class can do that,” he said.