Lincoln, Neb. —Leaving rural Nebraska communities better than she found them is the passion of Amber Ross.
Ross, a 2020 graduate of the University of Nebraska’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the new executive director of the Ravenna Economic Development Corporation, already has an impressive amount of experience in that space.
“I connect people to assets they need” she said. In doing so, she works to make Nebraska communities better places to live, work and play. She speaks with heightened enthusiasm about the job she assumed in January 2020 while wrapping up her senior year in agricultural business online.
While her passion may be self-described as straight-forward, her work of juggling multiple projects definitely is not. There’s economic and business development, marketing and promotion and event planning, not to mention accountability to a board of directors. Ross, who grew up on a farm/ranch (yes, both, she says) near Callaway, said her experience in UNL’s Rural Fellows program cemented her career path.
“I literally owe this job to the program,” she said, referencing the Rural Fellows summer internship program, in which Ross participated for three summers during her undergraduate studies. Since 2013, students have spent 10 weeks over a summer working with leaders in rural areas on projects critical to sustained success of rural communities. The students’ work, on average, results in a $28,000 economic impact per community.
The internship program, a part of Rural Prosperity Nebraska, is housed under UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Communities that apply for the program are matched with student teams, generally duos. Students receive extensive training and mentoring along the way. Overall, the program brings together Nebraska Extension educators, students, faculty, partner organizations and community leaders from across the state to address rural challenges and identify opportunities for growth.
For Ross, it all started the summer of 2017 when she headed to West Point. What did her employer, the West Point Chamber of Commerce, want in addition to branding and marketing? A close look at open spaces. Ross did a parks assessment and learned the diverse population was seeking more music and arts. Done.
In the summer of 2018, Ross headed back to rural Nebraska for more, this time in Columbus. The assignment – a more user-friendly, online community calendar. Done. Plus, pop-up events to build pride of place. Done.
On to summer of 2019 where Ross found herself back home in Custer County, this time supervising four Rural Fellows. The task – events to celebrate the fifth anniversary of moving an old barn along the Sandhills Scenic Byway near Callaway. Done.
About these summers, Ross doesn’t mince words of praise. “Being a fellow helped build my network and honed my communication, time management and organizational skills…The Rural Fellows program definitely helped shape me into the professional that I am today.”
Ross encourages the hosting of Rural Fellows, which costs $12,000 a summer -- $5,000 each for two students and an extra $2,000 for expenses.
“When you are swamped with the day-to-day responsibilities, fellows can be handed a project, and get it done fast,” Ross said, adding that rural Nebraska is becoming a popular place to move lately. “It’s ideal for families to get out of the big city and find quality of life,” she says. “We are all scrambling to attract them.”
To further her commitment to Rural Fellows, Ross hosted four students this last summer. She got as much out of the program as a community leader as she did as a student.
“I love it. It is so exciting,” Ross said. “Fellows have such fresh ideas and different perspectives. It’s invigorating.”
And for students contemplating application, Ross said that the relationships she developed were just as important as the work she did. Fellows build networks by meeting a variety of people, improve skills in communications and leadership and are in charge of something they can kick start and often see to completion.
“It is not what you know, but who you know,” she said.
To apply as a Rural Fellows host or student, see www.ruralprosperityne.unl.edu.
By Jane Schuchardt