Lincoln, Neb. —Within every endeavor, there are people behind the scenes who are rarely recognized by the general public. When it comes to Rural Prosperity Nebraska and community development, Daniela Manhani Mattos, an assistant professor and graduate thesis adviser in the Department of Agricultural Economics, is one such person.
Though she spends little time in the field these days, through teaching agricultural economics and advising graduate students, Manhani Mattos impacts the study of rural communities in Nebraska by educating extension professionals and future leaders.
“I’m the regular thesis adviser. Students write a proposal, and I review them,” she said. “But when I’m looking at their proposals, I ask (them), ‘How is this going to help communities?’”
Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Manhani Mattos has spent her educational career not just in agriculture, but specifically helping individuals in rural communities.
While earning her master’s degree at the University of São Paulo, she worked with impoverished farmers who were given small parcels of land through a federal grant program, “teaching them entrepreneurial techniques,” she said. “Most of them didn’t haven’t any education, so we implemented a program and were teaching them the basics of economics.”
Her community development doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed her rural life in America. For two years, she lived in a town of 1,000 people, working with residents to overcome the economic and agricultural struggles that rural communities often face. That was where Manhani Mattos found a home away from home.
“I went to church, basketball games, community clubs and organizations, weddings, birthdays,” she said. “I learned how to respect more and really admire the strength of the residents.”
Connecting with those whose lives differed from hers paved the way for her move to Canada, where she worked for a nonprofit organization that helped refugees find housing and jobs, and settle into their new lives.
When Manhani Mattos joined the university in 2013, she had the passion to mentor her students and the experience to help them translate the theories they learned in class into real-world application in the field.
That was what Jamie Bright, whose thesis focused on why a particular rural Nebraska community struggled and who completed her master’s degree in applied science in 2021, needed.
Manhani Mattos was instrumental in helping Bright extract meaning out of piles of research papers. Bright had collected information from interviews, focus groups, old yearbooks, newspapers, and even postcards from a Smithsonian exhibition on rural communities. But she struggled with the “What now?” of her findings.
“Daniela said that in our research and in community development, a lot of times we don’t find anything groundbreaking,” Bright said. “But we can share it with communities in the hopes that they can take that and make positive change.”
Sometimes Manhani Mattos’ advising deals with paperwork, and other times it delves into the research itself, according to Taylor Hart, who graduated in 2020 with a master’s degree in community development.
“What Daniela is really good at is she can see where questions might be coming up (in your research) and where your gaps are,” Hart said. “Going through those and filling those in with her was really beneficial.”
Hart’s thesis looked at the shopping habits of Wahoo residents, but when COVID-19 shut down in-store retail, her research halted. So Hart turned to her adviser.
“We were able to work collaboratively on it, because she has so much experience in what I’m interested in — actually working with small towns and small businesses,” Hart said.
After long discussions looking at alternative angles to the subject, Hart changed her focus to online shopping experiences in rural communities. From web-based shopping to curbside pickup, Hart adapted her research questions “to see how those differences would be or wouldn’t be during a pandemic. The (retailers) were really innovative.”
Advising students on how to adjust to “a new normal” was not new for Manhani Mattos. When Tayler Wickham, also a 2020 graduate in community development, proposed a project to increase volunteer participation in 4-H programming in Douglas and Sarpy counties, it was anything but traditional.
“My thesis wasn’t really a thesis. It was more like a project,” Wickham said. “To a fault, I’m very independent, but I realized that I needed more guidance, and so I really relied on Daniela to kind of show me what the project needed to be, rather than what I thought it needed to be. She was very gracious in that.”
While each of these students successfully defended her thesis, Manhani Mattos’ influence still impacts their careers today. Bright works in community development as a Rural Prosperity Nebraska extension educator in Sidney, while Wickham works in 4-H youth development as an extension educator in Washington County. Hart followed closely in Manhani Mattos’ footsteps and is an academic adviser in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
That is the ongoing influence Manhani Mattos has on individuals in rural communities across the country.
“I like the opportunity that I have to help students who are making a difference where they live,” Manhani Mattos said. “I learn all the time with them. The ideas that they have for community development, in the classes that I teach or on the discussion boards, are amazing.”