COH & CALES Team on New Rural Leadership and Renewal Program

March 3, 2020

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In keeping with its land-grant mission, the University of Arizona has always served the rural areas of the state, through agricultural research and education that directly impact those communities.


Now, through an innovative partnership between the College of Humanities and the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences, the university has created a new program designed to teach students how to become effective leaders in rural Arizona and beyond.


Beginning in Fall 2020, students in the bachelor of arts in Applied Humanities will have the opportunity to emphasize in Rural Leadership and Renewal, an interdisciplinary course of study that will teach students a range of skills spanning the humanities, innovation, and entrepreneurial leadership, especially in the agricultural arena.


“We don’t have a rural studies program at the U of A, which is a bit of a gap that needs to be filled to best serve our community,” says Matt Mars, Associate Professor of Agricultural Education, Technology and Innovation. “Arizona is primarily rural, and we have an obligation to prepare students to serve rural communities in a variety of ways, from economic development to community development to social innovation.”


The idea for the Rural Leadership and Renewal emphasis came about through conversations between Mars and Judd Ruggill, Head of the Department of Public and Applied Humanities. Seeing a crucial need in the rural areas of the state, they designed a curriculum to provide students with a broad-based education that will enable them to be innovators and leaders in the future.


“We’re getting students fully engaged with the understanding that what every rural community has in common is people and the Humanities will provide them with a wonderful balance to the entrepreneurial strategy at the heart of the program,” Mars says. “Agriculture is the basis by which we have built modern society. My hope and expectation is that this is a way for agriculture students to get outside of what they know and where they’re comfortable and really push themselves to dive into the humanities and build their critical thinking and their cultural awareness and literacy. They wouldn’t otherwise get this training if they were doing a strictly agricultural program.”


Humanities and the arts are crucially important to rural communities because those are the things that create a quality of life that draws talented people.


“There’s often limited opportunities in many rural areas when it comes to overall quality of life measures that typically draw younger professionals and families to communities,” Mars says. “There’s a national movement underway to bolster arts & humanities in rural areas, so this seemed an ideal way to build the program. Collaborating with the Department of Public and Applied Humanities enabled us to create a program consistent with the broader narrative around rural community development.”


Public humanities projects can be a way of preserving the culture and tradition of rural areas, as well bringing in new ideas in tangible ways.


“We want students connecting with rural areas and asking ‘How can we help? What can we imagine here?’ A key purpose of the Rural Leadership and Renewal emphasis is not only to train students to imagine opportunities, but to be the leaders who turn those opportunities into realities,” Ruggill says. “The goal is for students to develop the skills and mindset necessary to ensure the places they want to live are as vibrant as they are.”


Shane Burgess, Vice President of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension, said it’s fitting that two colleges mentioned specifically in the Morrill Act of 1862, which founded America’s land-grant universities, are working together for the future.


“Arizona is known for our rural locations and heritage. Tourism is our biggest export sector. I am thrilled that our two colleges are again collaborating with this Rural Leadership and Renewal program,” he says. “It will strengthen rural communities and economies and help students prepare to be leaders and job creators. It is a perfect fit with what we are already doing in Agricultural Education, Family and Consumer Health Sciences, and our Cooperative Extension programs.”


College of Humanities Dean Alain-Philippe Durand says the cultural and language emphasis of other Humanities degree programs could combine with the Rural Leadership and Renewal emphasis to give graduates the ability to work in rural areas around the world.


“This is a way to serve not just the state of Arizona, but rural communities across the United States and even all over the world,” Durand says. “The skills taught in the humanities are growing increasingly important in a more connected and diverse world. We’re pleased to add this as one of the many collaborations between CALES and COH.”


The challenges specific to rural areas will require an innovative and entrepreneurial approach in the future, Mars says.


“The program is designed so that the courses students take are focused on entrepreneurial leadership skills that foster the mobilization of resources and implementation strategies needed to support and sustain community innovation,” Mars says. “The big challenge with rural communities is that unlike urban areas, the markets aren’t very big and the tax bases are much smaller. The students have to have a different way of approaching these problems. You can’t expect them to go into rural areas and be transformative without that.” 


The Rural Leadership and Renewal emphasis is designed around project-based, experiential learning. Like all Applied Humanities emphases, students are required to complete a career readiness course sequence, which includes pre-internship, internship and capstone classes. The extensive network of CALES outreach efforts across the state will provide new opportunities for internships, connecting students with rural communities even before graduation.


“We don’t want to be teaching the program just on campus. We want to get students out in the communities that will ideally become their homes,” Mars says. “They need to learn how to assess challenges that will be unique to those communities and conceptualize what a real solution will look like and what resources are available. It’s a much more comprehensive approach.”


For both colleges, the partnership is focused on the university’s responsibilities as the state’s land-grant university. 


“By working together, we can fulfill the land-grant promise in new and interesting ways, ways that serve the entirety of the state, not just the cities,” Ruggill says. “Part of the university’s responsibility is to train tomorrow’s leaders, and the Rural Leadership and Renewal emphasis is intended to help the university community do just that.”