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Building a robust rural community on campus

The Haas Center and the Bill Lane Center for the American West are working together to expand awareness of rural issues and increase geographic diversity at Stanford.
Rural scene

Tom Schnaubelt, executive director of the Haas Center for Public Service, grew up on a farm in rural Wisconsin. While Schnaubelt has been at Stanford since 2009, he has rarely crossed paths with others who grew up in or understood rural communities. The stereotypes he encountered did not portray the reality of a diverse rural population with people from disparate regional, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. 

“There is a gap in people’s awareness,” he said of his interactions on campus about rural life. “The flyover states are just that for some people. They’ve never experienced it.”

Though Schnaubelt saw this happening in his personal life, the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election showed just how pervasive the schism was, as the country’s sharp political divide showed close geographic ties on electoral maps.

Schnaubelt responded by asking Stanford’s Institutional Research & Decision Support (IR&DS) office for an analysis of how many of Stanford’s domestic undergraduate students were from rural U.S. zip codes. IR&DS provided numbers from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, which uses the United States Census Bureau definition of rural areas. The results showed that less than five percent of the student population was from rural areas, despite nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population living in those areas.

For Schnaubelt, this was evidence that rural students on campus were starkly underrepresented. To encourage more community and inclusion among rural students, Schnaubelt worked with a few students to host a gathering.

Rural Stanford focus group

This first event was the beginning of a sustained effort to expand awareness of rural issues and increase geographic diversity at Stanford. The Stanford Rural Engagement Network was officially launched in 2018 as a collaboration between the Haas Center for Public Service and The Bill Lane Center for the American West, which supports research, teaching, and reporting about Western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

The initiative has three overarching goals: to increase awareness of the challenges facing domestic rural students, to build leadership to address these issues, and to create opportunities for greater understanding and trust between urban and rural students.

These goals are informed by a 2020 survey of rural Stanford students. One of the greatest barriers they cited once they arrived on campus was a feeling of being misunderstood by others. This was in combination with other factors that created obstacles during the application process, such as a lack of community support and fewer educational opportunities at home.

Rural Pods screenshot from Bill Lane Center article

A coalition of students and advisors has tackled these goals in a variety of ways. To increase a sense of community for rural students on campus, the group has organized social mixers. They have focused many of their efforts on engaging with incoming students, with a meet-and-greet event for Admit Weekend. When campus activities restricted in-person connections, they also set up virtual “family pods,” where sophomores, juniors, and seniors could help first-year students with their transition.

To increase the percentage of rural students in the student population, the group worked with the Office of Undergraduate Admission, relaying the obstacles that currents students initially faced when applying.

The Stanford Rural Engagement Network also did admissions outreach through programs like Matriculate, which connects college students with high school students to guide the high schoolers through the college admissions process. By using digital platforms, potential students from more remote locations had the opportunity to receiving mentoring.

The group identified an opportunity to increase awareness around rural issues by advocating for more space in the curriculum, and the group had a variety of conversations with faculty across campus about how that might be accomplished. They also coordinated an event series, Exploring Life in Rural America, with speakers on various topics affecting the rural community.

Rural communities were given greater attention in public service work through the Cardinal Quarter team, which offered a Rural Studies Fellowship—now a part of the Haas Center summer fellowships program—and worked to identify more rural locations for other Cardinal Quarter fellowships.

Rural Stanford mixer

Zac Stoor, ’22, had a leadership role in the group during his senior year. He was a part of the push for a rural studies minor and led the “Just Corn and Cows? Exploring the Rural Divide” Alternative Spring Break trip, which exposed students to the rural divide through learning opportunities and community visits.

Originally from Crystal Falls in the upper peninsula of Michigan, Stoor understood the feeling of isolation that many rural students have on campus.

“The experience of being rural is a very specific one,” he said. “It's one of oftentimes being farther from resources, where the small community makes a big difference in your life because they're the only ones that are around you. These cultural differences mean that adapting to Stanford can be difficult.”

Stoor believes the antidote is building a greater sense of community, which benefits not only students from rural backgrounds, but also students from urban areas who haven’t been exposed to rural communities in a meaningful way before. He feels gratified that he was able to be involved in laying the foundation to strengthen a sense of community for other rural students, which will continue as a campus student group.

“For me the hardest year of adjustment was frosh year,” Stoor reflected. “That’s when I was most wanting of something like this for myself. It feels gratifying to know that I left behind a community that was important to me.”

Schnaubelt also feels a sense of pride in the important work that has been accomplished and the strength of the community that has evolved.

“I’ve encountered a lot of amusing assumptions about rurality, such as the belief that people commonly still draw well water using a bucket and rope,” he said. “One thing I’ve learned from working closely with Stanford students who hail from rural areas: they defy many of the assumptions we may have of them.”