Beyond the Bricks
North Carolina’s rural counties — which include some of the most economically distressed areas in the state — are losing bright young minds to larger, more urban centers at a fast rate. This “brain drain” hampers population and economic growth. But those rural counties can expect a boost from NC State’s new Rural Works! program, which is designed to address the significant opportunities and challenges in these areas. The Rural Works! internship program offers experiential education for students working with employers in rural counties.
Rural Works! started in 2018 through a partnership between the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, the Office of Outreach and Engagement, and NC State Extension. The program supports NC State’s commitment to social, economic and technological development across North Carolina.
“Nearly half of North Carolina’s counties are losing their population, and that includes young people, who leave for college and don’t return,” said Rebekah Dunstan, rural outreach coordinator with the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. “Rural Works! will support the workforce in these counties by showing students that these places hold promise for a career and a future.”
Students apply for the paid internship program through NC State’s ePack portal and go through an interview process for a government entity, nonprofit or private business. The internship includes a service component to expose students to the challenges many shrinking rural communities face, including food insecurity and lack of transportation. Through Rural Works!, students use their NC State education to find solutions to these issues.
“Rural Works! brings together all of NC State’s colleges to be more intentional in connecting to rural parts of the state,” said Leslie Boney, vice provost for outreach and engagement, and director of the Institute for Emerging Issues. “We want to help rural areas combat ‘brain drain’ by helping them attract and retain young talent.”
The program touches on two of the key goals in NC State’s strategic plan — enhancing student success and serving locally and globally. The internships provided through Rural Works! are some of the “high-impact” practices mentioned in the strategic plan. Research shows that internships help students improve academically, and land more and better job offers after graduation. Bright students in these internships in turn help rural communities thrive.
During the program’s inaugural summer, 19 student interns from NC State served entities covering 23 North Carolina counties. James Pinson, a junior majoring in industrial engineering, interned at Timberline, Inc., a Henderson, North Carolina-based company providing packaging and materials-handling solutions.
Pinson’s internship focused on improving assembly processes by reducing product assembly time. His NC State classes helped him use data from a study he conducted to make process improvement suggestions, and then evaluate the effectiveness of changes made from his suggestions.
“The Rural Works! program could have an enormous impact on rural North Carolina communities,” said Pinson. “The changes I helped implement this summer will improve profit margins and could result in more employees being hired in the long run. If NC State interns go back to the same towns and continue to make whatever improvements they can, then over time those improvements will continue to build off each other and improve the community.”
During the 8-10 week summer internship, participants receive professional development coaching and support from Rural Works! coordinators, along with NC State Extension employees in the area they serve.
At the internship’s conclusion, students attend career workshops and debrief with program coordinators on how to articulate their experience on resumes and to future employers. Next year, program coordinators hope to place even more students with a Think and Do attitude into rural counties.
“It is very difficult for us to recruit, because we are in a very rural part of Eastern North Carolina,” said Frances Herring, associate superintendent of Lenoir County Public Schools. “We have a direct pipeline to an awesome collection of students who can come and work with us, and we look forward to a continued relationship with NC State and the Rural Works! Program.”
Whether in a manufacturing warehouse, school or other location, NC State students are ready to make an impact in rural communities in the short and long term. Through Rural Works!, these communities seek to grow and provide a future that they will work hand-in-hand with these students to create.