It was my 19th birthday, and freshman move-in day at Buena Vista University. It was a day I’d waited for as long as I could remember. I had big plans, high goals, and huge aspirations, none of which, I thought, could be achieved in the small northeast Nebraska town I called home.
I recently read a piece in the Daily Iowan by a young writer named Stacey Murray. Her article titled “Fading to What?” is an excellent portrayal of the struggles rural communities face, perhaps none more challenging than the sentiments the author expresses about her own future.
She states, “There will come a time, after the ink dries on my diploma, when I’m ready to start a more permanent life. It won’t be in Hopkinton, the place where my parents live, my grandfather started his business, the librarians knew me by name as a little girl with perpetually knotted hair and an affinity for Junie B. Jones. … I love my hometown. But it’s so hard to imagine a Hopkinton where I could stay. Where will I work? Where will I live? What could the town provide me as I strive to build a career and a new life?”
Although she expresses a sense of regret and sorrow at this conclusion, for Stacey, at this point in her life, a future in rural America is unthinkable. I know on my 19th birthday and well into my twenties, my sentiments toward rural America and my home town mirrored hers.
My hometown, Howells, Nebraska, sounds strikingly similar to the author’s own Hopkinton, Iowa. A population of approximately 600 people, full of struggling businesses whose owners lament the old days when they served a larger population.
As I grew up, the town grew smaller, both literally and figuratively. College was my escape, my route to bigger and better. After working my way through college on a farm, I moved to the big city, Des Moines, Iowa. Some may scoff, but to one who grew up in a town of 600, Des Moines is huge. My future was at hand, and the thought of ever relocating to a small town was laughable at best.
After a few years, as the excitement of city life began to fade, I found myself going out of my way to find gravel road routes to simple destinations. When I bought my first house in Des Moines, an acreage and pastureland was visible through my bedroom window. Though I had made it a mission to leave small town rural America behind, a subconscious longing for wide open spaces, a simpler way of life, and a greater sense of community was emerging.
Then my life and perspective changed. Amazing how a growing family can do that to a person. When my wife, Melissa, and I found out we were having our first son, I started thinking about the future he would have. The frequent emergency sirens we heard started feeling less like a minor nuisance. The sight of neighborhood kids tethered to their own property out of fear of what might be beyond felt stifling.
Although we were in a very nice neighborhood on the edge of the city, our property fell just inside a less than desirable school district. Class sizes fall in the 600-800 student range, teachers often inaccessible, and student participation in extracurricular activities a struggle.
In contrast, my high school graduating class was 31. Teachers were available for personal one-on-one interaction, knew my name, and were invested in my success. I was able to participate in every extracurricular activity I wanted, providing powerful experiences that have shaped my life ever since.
My wife and I decided, in short, we wanted our boy to grow up in an environment where he too will never have to pull the keys out of the ignition of his car. He’ll be able to visit a local restaurant with his friends and order on the “family tab.” And the community will be an extended family, cheering him on, rooting for his success.
Taking a position at the Center for Rural Affairs gave me the opportunity to provide that for my family, now consisting of my wife and two growing boys. I wasn’t able to relocate to my hometown, but I’m in another great small community a mere 40 miles away, working to help small towns across the nation address their challenges and succeed.
To Stacey and other young people like her, I’d have to say, “I know where you are. Even five years ago, my thoughts on returning to a small town echoed yours. But, never say never. Perspectives change, lives change, and what you now value in a larger city may not be as important as those changes happen.”
Opportunities exist in small towns throughout Iowa, Nebraska, and the rest of the nation. In my college years, a prominent Storm Lake area lawyer professed to me, “The opportunities for your generation will exist in small towns. My generation will soon be retiring, and smaller communities need doctors, lawyers, dentists, newspaper editors, and other professionals.”
My family helped me find my way back to small town USA. I hope one day you can too.
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