University of Georgia’s inaugural Redefining Rural Students’ Success and Wellbeing: An unConference on Practice, Research, and Innovation, held March 19-20, was its first national convening to discuss rural student access into and through American higher education.
The virtual event boasted 156 registrants with representation from 31 states and 70 organizations and institutions. Over two days, attendees listened to three keynote speakers, UGA students from rural areas, and a panel discussion moderated by Beckie Supiano of The Chronicle of Higher Education, with breaks for rich discussions on various subjects related to rural student success and wellbeing.
“Rural students are an integral part of our student body, and we wanted to promote a larger, more robust conversation around their success,” said Rahul Shrivastav, vice president for instruction. “We were pleased to host this conference as an incubation space for national constituents to come together to discuss all aspects of supporting students from rural areas, from recruitment through graduation and beyond.”
Rural students make up nearly 20% of the enrollment at public high schools in the U.S and almost a quarter of students in Georgia. While their high school completion rates are high, they are less likely to graduate from a four-year school compared to their urban peers.
Why? Preparation and access to information such as Advanced Placement classes play a role, as do varying attitudes about higher education and different degrees of opportunity in the rural economy. Once they arrive on campus, rural students navigate distinct cultural differences such as living in residential halls larger than their high school or navigating a transit system when public transportation doesn’t exist in their hometown.
The state of Georgia ranks third in the nation for the number of K-12 rural students. In 2018, UGA launched the ALL Georgia program to support rural student success. ALL Georgia, housed within the Division of Academic Enhancement, provides a network of resources and support for incoming and current students from rural Georgia and currently serves more than 4,000 students. Several students active in the ALL Georgia Program were featured in the unConference, including Madison Britt, Briana Hayes, Ciara Page and Austin Counts.
“Part of the reason I wanted to be involved in the Rural Student Success unConference is because it enabled me to share my story in order to shed more light on several issues that rural students experience,” said Britt, a graduate student at UGA who served on the unConference planning committee. “I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating conversation and new insights folks brought with them to further advocate for rural students.”
Now considered a leader in rural student success, UGA invited researchers, practitioners, policymakers, students and the community to join together in a national conversation. In lieu of a traditional conference, it borrowed the concept of the unConference from the technology and business worlds and therefore focused not on formal research presentations but on “roundtable” conversations. Keynotes by Nicholas Hillman, Darris Means and Maria Luna-Torres centered around rural student success in the past, present and future. Facilitated groups discussed the current status of rural access in higher education and best practices around support for students once they arrive on campus. These groups allowed for faculty, staff and students from across the country to share their experiences and plan for the future.
“The unConference setting allowed for engaging dialogue and exchange of innovative ideas for immediate practical application to strengthen our collective work and commitment to supporting rural student success,” said Lindsay Coco, assistant director within the Division of Academic Enhancement. “As we continue to support our rural students’ journeys to and through higher education, national convenings such as this unConference are critical to advancing new considerations on policies and practices for the future.”
The Redefining Rural Students’ Success and Wellbeing unConference was supported by a State-of-the-Art Conference Grant from the UGA Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. For more information, visit rural.uga.edu.