Fire at camp site


For Youth in Rural America, Unique Challenges and Surprising Opportunity

When Law Loving was growing up in Northeast Tennessee, he saw a troubling trend taking place: Students were leaving high school without a plan, many of them incurring large amounts of student debt for career paths that weren’t a good fit, and many of them not starting down a path at all.

When Loving moved back to the region after college, he was excited to get involved with CareerConnect, a Niswonger Foundation program that helps students get connected to successful careers. Since then, his passion for supporting students in rural regions has only grown.

In this Q&A with America’s Promise, Loving provides insight into the challenges and opportunities that come with growing up in a rural area.

What are some things about rural regions that people would be surprised to know?

People might be surprised to learn how rapidly things are changing in rural areas. The national narrative around rural regions of the country tends to be one of decline and decay. Small communities everywhere have lost jobs as industries have left or shutdown. The picture painted is one of despair. What that story doesn’t tell is that rural communities are working hard to improve their current condition.

In the area where I live and work, the economy was long based on low-skilled manufacturing and agriculture. These industries are certainly in decline and jobs in them have all but vanished. Yet as these have faded out, they’ve been replaced by other industries like healthcare, which is projected to see job growth in the double digits over the coming decade in Northeast Tennessee.

Northeast Tennessee
Loving grew up in Northeast Tennessee, where the healthcare industry is expected to see significant job growth in the coming decade.

Advanced manufacturers have doubled down in our region and are also projecting strong job growth. When it comes to jobs, the primary issue in many rural communities isn’t the decline of industries, it’s that workers don’t have the skills to fill the jobs that are available. In Tennessee, state and local leaders, technical schools, community colleges, traditional universities, local LEAs, and non-profits are all working hard to bridge this skills gap.

What challenges do children and youth face in rural regions that those in urban environments don’t?

In an urban environment, students can be exposed to a lot without ever leaving their neighborhood. To get similar experiences, rural students have to be able to travel out of their hometowns. This means transit is a real challenge. Students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have working parents often don’t have the ability to get where they need to go. For CareerConnect, that means we always have to consider providing transit when we plan events.

There are also plenty of demographic challenges to address. Populations continue to shift towards urban and suburban areas, which leaves fewer people in rural areas. Not everyone, however, wants or can afford to make that kind of move. As a result, there’s a real danger of rural populations getting left behind by the very organizations that want to help kids. In terms of efficiency, it’s much easier to concentrate resources in a small area where they can impact a relatively high number of people. That can mean rural populations don’t get the resources they need.

Law Loving received a People of Promise award
Law Loving received a People of Promise award for his work with CareerConnect at the Recommit to Kids Summit. Photo credit: ©2017

What’s happening in rural America right now that you find encouraging? Are there models, mindsets, or initiatives that more of the country should be adopting?

I find it very encouraging that communities everywhere are looking inward to solve their problems. Every community has unique resources it can use to improve life for the people that live there. Often the stakeholders in a community are best positioned to utilize those resources to make a difference.

CareerConnect, for example, is totally supported by local business interests who want to make a difference in their community. It’s a prime example of community members taking it upon themselves to solve a problem. This model for change isn’t new, but I think it’s certainly one that can be applied in every community, rural or otherwise. Sometimes it only takes one key person to have a big impact.

Law Loving, 26, is a coordinator for the CareerConnect program at Niswonger Foundation and has taught as an adjunct faculty member in the Mass Communications department at East Tennessee State University. He received a People of Promise award from America’s Promise Alliance in 2017.

This blog is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth. Join the conversation at #Recommit2Kids.