Georgia Impact

Developing future rural leaders through PROPEL

Students work on a beautification project in downtown Baxley. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

UGA students explore needs of rural Georgia communities through new program

UGA students are learning about economic drivers in rural Georgia — and why they matter to the state as a whole — as scholars in PROPEL, a unique program led by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. PROPEL (Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership) provides rural communities with resources to create systems needed to support their own economic and workforce development strategies.

Students visit Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

Max White aspires to a management career in rural economic development and is gaining hands-on experience through the PROPEL Rural Scholars program. A third-year atmospheric sciences and economics major whose family goes back generations in Grady County, White recognized the opportunities PROPEL could provide rural communities and how he could be a part of it.

“It made me wonder what I can do to improve conditions in my hometown,” he said.

Launched last fall with a generous $250,000 gift from the University of Georgia Foundation and a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the PROPEL Rural Scholars program is part of an overarching effort to help low-income rural cities and counties become more self-sufficient and prosperous.

Students tour the simulated control room of the Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Power Plant. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

“As a land-grant institution, the University of Georgia is committed to developing the next generation of leaders and to creating economic opportunities for our home state,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “We are grateful for the generous financial support we have received for the PROPEL Rural Scholars program to help us achieve both of these goals.”

Neal J. Quirk, chair of the UGA Foundation Board of Trustees, said the group was honored to support the university’s public service and outreach mission by investing in the program.

Students visit the Appling Agricultural Center and meet some 4-H pigs. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

“The success of Georgia’s rural communities is critical to the prosperity of the entire state. We saw that giving today’s UGA students the chance to engage with rural community leaders was a powerful opportunity that we wanted to strongly support as a priority of the board,” he said.

It’s also a way to highlight more of what the state has to offer.

“The purpose of the PROPEL Rural Scholars program is to build future leaders in rural Georgia,” said Vinson Institute faculty member Greg Wilson, who directs the program. “Even if their interests vary — from banking to agribusiness to education — these students are gaining an understanding of specific issues and how they can give back,” he said.

Students work on a beautification project in downtown Baxley and tour the area to learn about downtown revitalization initiatives. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

PROPEL Rural Scholar Alyssa Ashurst is ready to dive in. A second-year agribusiness major, she appreciates the ripple effect of a healthy rural Georgia.

“Rural communities grow food for the state and around the globe. It’s important to give back and help those communities so they can flourish and develop in self-directed ways. Sometimes they just need a little help getting there,” Ashurst said.

In the fall, student scholars spent time in Appling County to get a feel for the community and its needs. The field trip included tours of a nuclear power plant, agricultural facilities and small businesses.

Students work on a beautification project in downtown Baxley. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

In downtown Baxley, students helped fill new planters along the main corridor as a service project that’s part of a beautification effort by the Downtown Development Authority to get the “heart of our community pumping again,” said Keri Orvin, city manager. She’s hoping to bring more businesses downtown to help grow the tax base, preserve historic buildings and create new destinations for dining and shopping.

With a recently received Rural Zone designation — which gives tax credits for potential development of historical structures — the city is poised for such growth; it just needs help creating a framework for what that looks like.

To that end, PROPEL Rural Scholars will identify best practices and find ordinances from similar communities under the guidance of UGA faculty and staff.

Students stand by a mural on their tour of downtown Baxley. (Photo by Shannah Montgomery)

Orvin welcomes the additional brain power and assistance.

“We just don’t have the resources to do some of the research necessary regarding ordinances and infrastructure. We’re excited to have UGA students navigate some of the areas where we need help,” she said.

For students like Avery Jainniney, a second-year international affairs and political science major, seeing the people and places of Appling County brings the project to life.

“It was great to be out in the community — it makes me more passionate about the work we’re doing. There’s a lot to be done, but seeing the energy and commitment of people who live there is motivating,” she said.

UGA students who are interested in becoming a PROPEL Rural Scholar for the 2023-2024 academic year can apply online through April 14 at

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