Valleys and Hollers: Vocation in Rural Settings

Some might associate the word “rural” with “the boonies” or the “middle of nowhere.” If you have Appalachian roots like me, the idea of the “holler” might come to mind. Whether you’re a “flatlander” or nestled in a cascade of valleys, the word “rural” might conjure images of rolling farmland or long stretches of road across the horizon. Being rural has implications for higher education, ranging from policy creation to fascinating ideas like placemaking and boundary spanning. It also affects how we think about vocation.

Earlier this month The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “Why a Rural-Serving College May Look Different Than You Think.”  This piece highlights the important distinctions of what they define as “rural-serving institutions,” a designation of 1,087 institutions based on five metrics: home-county population, neighboring countries’ population, distance from a metro area, and institutional awards in agriculture, parks and recreation, and natural resources. The Alliance for Research on Regional College (ARRC), the organization leading the data collection and classification, present vital questions that could shape policy development and state funding policies (e.g., internet broadband expansion). The work of the AARC is an invitation to complicate our understanding of a generalizable term like “rural” thereby broadening our understanding of what it means to be a rural-serving institution.

Yet if you find yourself at a rural-serving institution, you already know the complexities of being in a rural area. Universities bring more than economics to a small town; they also bring arts, culture, athletics, and connections to new ideas and renewing energy. In “Leading Through Placemaking and Boundary Spanning: Rural Christian Higher Education for the Common Good,” authors Jennifer Scott Mobley, P. Jesse Rine, P. C. Kemeny, and H. Collin Messer proposed that rural evangelical colleges and universities can bridge economic, political, and cultural divides through placemaking and boundary spanning. The authors defined “placemaking” simply as the process of transforming of the places we live. “Boundary spanning” is a term that builds upon placemaking by leaders intentionally providing direction and connection across multiple boundaries. It’s moving beyond the divides of town and gown in small communities.

Recently, I find myself musing about the role of placemaking and boundary spanning in my life.

Recently, I find myself musing about the role of placemaking and boundary spanning in my life. I see linkages between the university and the community, a collaboration that is more vital than ever as both grapple with the long-lasting health and economic devastation of the global pandemic. Some may consider “rural” to be a negative attribute, citing hardships such as education disparities or economic shortfalls. Yet amid such systemic challenges, I also see the strengths of being “rural.” These communities can display a far-reaching powerful sense of community with deep compassion. Simply put, placemaking and boundary spanning begins with relationship.

John Leasure (1955-2022)

Portrait commissioned by the Portsmouth Area Arts Council for longstanding service on their board. Bequeathed to the author and used with her permission.

One of the relationships in my life that exemplifies the beauty and richness of rural life was my treasured friendship with John Leasure, who died on March 14. Born and raised in a rural town along the Ohio river, John became a gifted writer and thinker, leading him to college to study communications and eventually relocate to Los Angeles for work with several broadcasting networks, assisting shows such as Knots Landing. John’s childhood diagnosis of spina bifida and persistent medical complications couldn’t dampen his passion for the arts in all forms. Eventually, he discerned his choice to return to Ohio closer to family, working in state government offices, and subsequently networking with a wide host of politicians and state officials. When he returned to his hometown, his tenacity for the arts only grew as a “big fish in a small pond” as he would say, serving on numerous community boards for the children’s theater or the local performing arts association. Despite his ailing health, he used his writing gifts to promote arts and culture in the region through a local newspaper column and social media.

As we mourn his loss, I can’t help but notice that John believed in the power of relationship and the world of arts and culture as a gateway for not only personal refreshment but also regional renewal. There is a healing power in the arts, one that I think sustained John in mysterious ways. Perhaps one aspect of what it means to be a rural-serving institution is to be a place of hope and wonder in the context of community, a glimpse of the common good.

For the upcoming months, I’ll be writing about the intersections of vocation with topics such as academic advising, vocational exploration courses, and my own vocational journey. I’ll also be sharing aspects of my dissertation work on women college students in Appalachia and the influences facilitate the development of a sense of calling.

Related posts: On the experience of growing up in the Appalachian region of New York, see Jason Stevens’ piece on formative tensions and vocational discernment. Jeff Brown explores the themes of vocation and community in Wendell Berry in his two-part series, “Re(Reading) Wendell Berry.” See also Erin VanLaningham’s “The Cartography of Vocation”; Mindy Makant on “Casseroles and Community”; and Hannah Schell on local heroes and the calling of place.

Lindsay Monihen is Director of Student Advising and Support Services in the College of Professional Studies at Shawnee State University in Ohio. She previously worked at Juniata College in Pennsylvania where her portfolio focused on campus ministry and on diversity and inclusion. She is currently working on a dissertation at Azusa Pacific University that explores the development of a sense of calling among undergraduate women raised and educated in Appalachia.

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