Board spotlight: from intern to Board of Directors, Steele Valenzuela stays involved

Small Towns

Growing up in Decatur, Nebraska, Steele Valenzuela has known about the Center for Rural Affairs for most of his life. The Center, with a home office in the neighboring town of Lyons, became even more of a fixture for him as a teenager, and since March 2023, as a member of the Center’s Board of Directors.

Steele’s high school guidance counselor referred him to the Center for a summer internship. As a 16-year-old, he was aware of the world outside of him, but a brief stint at the Center opened his eyes to political advocacy and nonprofit work.

“That summer, I drove a 1990 Chevy Silverado and placed a green sticker on it that said ‘Family Farms over Factory Farms,’” said Steele. “I appreciated everybody’s opinion and passion on issues that were larger than themselves, yet also directly impacted them.”

For the past seven years, Steele has worked as a biostatistician at Oregon Health & Science University. His portfolio and scientific publications have consisted of policy evaluation of health insurance, such as patients who have Medicaid, Medicare, and even no health insurance, and how they use their health care.

He’s also completed research in cancer studies, graduate medical school education, Native American medical school education, diabetic complications, cardiovascular interventions, HPV vaccines in rural Oregon, and patients with multiple chronic diseases.

“Think of my job as both a computer programmer combined with math and science as I navigate large electronic health record data sets that are in the millions,” Steele said.

In summer 2021, Steele left Portland and moved home to Nebraska, leaving many of his friends wondering why he would leave a city for a smaller town.  He now works remotely from his home in Decatur. 

“Fortunately, growing up in Decatur I was able to move back home to a small welcoming community,” he said. “One of my friends said it really well, in that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, very few people would ever think to ‘move to the small town’ when folks are always ‘moving to the city.’ I value my community immensely, and the relationships I have with people from my town for 25-plus years is invaluable. I see the Center’s value in investing in rural communities, and for them to continue to do so for 50 years is very admirable and displays their commitment.”

Although Steele’s experience with the Board has been brief, he’s interested to see how the Center works with the Latino and Native American communities, and any other communities beyond what most people envision as “rural” and “Nebraskan.”

“For the Center to engage these communities is crucial to inclusivity, and I imagine rural communities will thrive,” he said. “I come from both of these communities as my dad is from a small farming village in Mexico and my mom grew up in Macy, on the Omaha Reservation. I’m really proud of where they’re from, and in turn, where I’m from, and how I contribute to my community with my perspective.”

Steele also believes his professional life will offer insights into his work on the Center’s Board of Directors, and he’s enjoying getting to know his fellow members.

“I dislike buzzwords, but my background highlights issues of health disparities, such as racial or ethnic disparities, income disparities, patients with no health insurance or inconsistent health insurance, and so on,” Steele said.

From the one Board meeting Steele has attended so far, he said learning from the other members was his favorite, yet unexpected, part.

“I can see my biases pop up in that I tell myself I may not have anything in common with other Board members who may be from other generations, but I do, and I hope to continue to relate and connect with them,” he said.

Steele looks forward to becoming more involved in the Center’s work and contributing where he can.

“Advocating for folks in rural areas, either through legislation, supporting businesses, and very recently, learning that the Center provides housing loans, shows that the Center is invested in society,” Steele said. “I admire the Center’s desire to continue to grow and make partnerships in all avenues, as well as the ambitious and involved Board members. I hope to keep learning from everyone.”