The summer of 2020 looks a lot different than the average summer for Judith Grey. The Union College senior is spending two months in rural Nebraska, 1,700 miles from the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida she calls home. A unique internship opportunity convinced her to swap sunny beaches for a chance to rejuvenate small-town Main Street as one of 17 student interns working to help revitalize rural communities around Nebraska through the Rural Futures Institute.

Grey and another intern were selected to work in Pierce County, Nebraska, and the towns of Pierce, Hadar, Plainview and Osmond. The project focuses on marketing the county and small towns to increase awareness and retain and recruit residents.

A new kind of community service project

Grey grew up in Florida and had never been to Nebraska before arriving on campus to begin her first year at Union College. At first she wasn’t convinced she’d stay, but her church family had given her winter gear, and her mom encouraged her to stick it out through a semester.

Grey didn’t have a major chosen, but she’d always had the goal to graduate college. She started as a general studies major and transferred to the business program in her sophomore year when her adviser suggested that the science business program could help her reach her career goals—to make and sell naturally based skin products. Four years later, she’s completing three online summer classes alongside her internship to close out her undergraduate experience and considering a career in human resources.

“I’m a person who just likes to learn,” Grey said. “Every class, I’ve learned something from it, and I’ve gained information.” One experience she credits with shaping her future was the chance to go to Union-sponsored career fairs and talk with HR professionals and company representatives.

It was at a career fair where she first learned about the Rural Futures Institute. “To me, it basically sounded like another community project,” said Grey, who has participated in community service projects with her family and was excited to help organize Union’s Project Impact for two years.

Her love of giving back and the uniqueness of the RFI program kept her interested. “I stayed in contact with them,” she said. “It sounded interesting and the plans they had sounded really good. I went through the whole interviewing process and I was chosen.”

Grey and another intern were put in charge of the RFI project in Pierce County, working alongside professionals and mentors at Pierce County Economic Development. The pair are focusing on nine aspects to market and promote the county and towns to improve and encourage awareness of the area, increase local spending, retain residents and recruit new residents. Their tasks have included brainstorming and implementing ways to digitally connect communities, create social media programs and host community events and virtual community gatherings. They’ve also immersed themselves in their communities, attending meetings with city councils, local chambers of commerce and economic development councils.

“Essentially, what our community needs is help staying connected and promoting retention,” Grey said. “People around my age group tend to go off to different places.”

She shared that during project briefings, she learned that across the U.S., younger generations aren’t seeing the same average economic improvements over their parents’ generation that previous cohorts had enjoyed. “It turns out there are different pockets around the state that are growing. My community is in the 3 percent of areas that are improving,” Grey said. “The reason they’re improving is because they have a tight-knit community where everybody cares for one another, and it’s small enough that many people have the opportunity to be involved and hold leadership roles. Having ownership in the community helps them prosper.”

Her work with RFI attempts to share this important fact—that younger people who stay in or move to Pierce County may be able to improve their lives and futures. In return, those younger people can help strengthen and grow their local community.

Location is also key. While rural Nebraska may not initially sound like a likely place for strong growth opportunities, Grey adds that the team is trying to capitalize on the presence of two major highways that run through Pierce County and increase the towns’ business potential because the existing infrastructure and centralized location make for faster shipping and receiving.

The current international health crisis has impacted their work. In some cases, Grey and her partner had to modify or create community celebrations to include physically distant events and promote businesses that are struggling under changing restrictions and dynamics. Still, they’ve been able to visit local communities to talk with leaders and business owners, take photos and videos for promotional materials and connect with local residents.

While the pace of life in a small town is different than Lincoln or Fort Lauderdale, Grey has found a sense of community. “It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s been slightly different, but I don’t mind the slower pace. It’s nice to go to all of the little different shops and see what they have. It’s more unique, it’s catered, people are willing to reach out on a limb for you.”

Grey said her experiences during this summer internship have proven to her that communication is key, both in life and business. She also believes sitting in on council meetings has shown her the reality of small-town life and the politics that each community deals with.

“It’s good to know where you’re living so you can actively be helpful,” she said. “It’s made me consider—if I do go back to Florida, what could I do to help out there? It’s good to hear the different perspectives and take the time to hear people out.”

Lauren Bongard Schwarz is a Union College graduate and freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana.