Rural Scholars program to help revitalize small communities

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  • Some Oklahoma State University students will spend the summer in rural communities in southwest Oklahoma to look at ways of improving health care, leadership development, rural housing and more. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)
    Some Oklahoma State University students will spend the summer in rural communities in southwest Oklahoma to look at ways of improving health care, leadership development, rural housing and more. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)
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STILLWATER, Okla. – Eleven students at Oklahoma State University are preparing this spring to lead community engaged research in rural communities in Harmon and Tillman counties this summer. These Rural Scholars are a key component of OSU’s Rural Renewal Initiative.

Through their coursework this spring, the students are being prepared to conduct successful community-based research in areas such as rural health care, youth leadership development, and rural housing, to name a few.

Audrey King, communications coordinator for the Rural Renewal Initiative, said not only do the students get a great experience, the communities benefit, as well.

“Students will spend 10 weeks in Harmon and Tillman counties and work with community leaders to carry out various research projects and provide assistance, support and solutions for issues faced by residents, including rural housing and public policy,” King said. “During their coursework this spring, the students are gathering background information on their assigned community and research topic.”

This will be the second summer for this aspect of the Rural Renewal Initiative. This year’s Rural Scholars are also interacting with last summer’s cohort to acquire valuable information on how they can be the most effective in their assigned communities.

“Research and change aren’t instantaneous, so the communities where our Scholars were last summer are excited to have this new set of Scholars return to continue the work that was started in 2020. Sometimes small communities feel forgotten and they’re excited OSU wants to help,” King said. “Not only are they involved in research projects, the Scholars also engage in community service work while they are there. We want them fully immersed in the community.”

Last summer, Rural Scholars addressed a variety of community priorities, including rural health care. With the closure of the hospital in Tillman County, one Scholar worked with local emergency medical service crews to develop a telehealth program that provides the EMTs and paramedics immediate, virtual access to emergency medicine physicians while on a call.

Mark Woodring, assistant dean of rural health at OSU’s Center for Health Sciences, said EMS workers are currently equipped with a device connected to AT&T FirstNet service to consult with the emergency physicians in real-time at OSU Medical Center in Tulsa.

“Our hope during this pilot program is for the emergency room doctor to help provide additional resources and assurance to the EMS team and patient,” Woodring said.

Another project involved Scholars examining the effects of  leadership development in Frederick where high school students learned about important issues that may not be discussed in school, including some current events. This program is taught by community members and they emphasize that even if you live in a rural area, you can learn to think critically and communicate clearly about big topics.

Scholars also were involved in another research topic focused on improving agricultural water management utilizing soil moisture sensors in irrigated cropland. This is particularly important in southwest Oklahoma due to drought concerns. This research helps agricultural producers make sound, evidenced-based decisions to increase their farm’s success based on the limited amount of rainfall they receive and irrigation water they can access.

Stephanie Gripp, a sophomore animal science and business major, said she’s excited to go and experience things in rural Oklahoma.

“It’s hard to know what communities need without talking to the people who live there. I can’t wait to make connections within these communities and talk with the people who love their community,” Gripp said.

Gabby Barber said she applied to be a Rural Renewal Scholar to gain hands-on experience.

“I knew it would be folly to pass up the opportunity to spend 10 weeks researching issues in a hands-on, communitybased environment,” said the biochemistry and molecular biology major.

Austin Jackson, agricultural leadership graduate student, said he believes the Rural Renewal Scholars program is vital for Oklahoma.

“It’s important because rural communities make up a great deal of our population. I hope to use this opportunity to gain a better understanding of the challenges facing rural Oklahoma and learn about these communities ,” Jackson said.

King said the 2021 Rural Scholars are excited to get out into the communities and begin working with community members on rural housing, public policy and other projects to help revitalize these areas.

“The residents of these two counties are ready to be part of this project again and are looking forward to even more tangible results,” King said.

More information about the Rural Renewal Initiative and the Rural Scholars program is available online.

OSU students who are interested in becoming a Rural Scholar in 2022 are invited to submit an application.