Rural Fellows Take Best to Better in Pierce County

Piece County Economic Development Office
Judith Grey (left) and Marie Meis (right) in the Piece County Economic Development Office where they worked as student fellows during summer 2020.
December 16, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —Start with a top-ranked Nebraska county, pull in a powerhouse Rural Fellows duo, add an energetic mentor and what do you get? A formula for marketing success in Pierce County and four of its communities.

When speaking of the summer 2020 Rural Fellows she supervised, “I’d hire them again in a heartbeat,” said Pierce County Economic Development Director Susan Norris of the 2020 Rural Fellows she supervised. “They’re fresh, youthful, energic and haven’t heard ‘no’ 1,000 times yet.”

The fellows got a kickstart since Pierce County is part of the four-county area ranked first in the Nebraska Thriving Index for quality of life, economic opportunity and diversity, education and growth. Further, in an era when new generations are not expected to fare financially as well as previous ones, a 2019 study commissioned by the National 4-H Council with Nebraska Extension participating, showed the opposite for Pierce County youth. 

Judith Grey, a south Floridian graduating December 2020 from Union College in Lincoln, and Marie Meis, a UNL junior majoring in journalism from rural Elgin, spent the summer entrenched in Pierce County. Selected as part of Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s Rural Fellows program, the energetic students were handed a complex marketing task with many moving parts.

Rural Prosperity Nebraska, housed in UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 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. In addition to the Nebraska Thriving Index, Rural Prosperity Nebraska manages the Rural Fellows program, which matches students with host communities and provides intense leadership training and onsite monitoring.

Because of the pandemic, the usual 10-week fellowship was compressed to eight weeks, which required Grey and Meis to work at a fever pitch to design logos and slogans, create town and county promotional videos, write media releases and plan community events.

Among the programs Meis and Grey worked on was Pierce County Shop Where I Live, which Norris described as a “mini Amazon.” The program aims to encourage local residents to shop both in person and online from Pierce County retailers. The fellows worked to link local businesses’ Facebook pages to Google Maps.  

“Most businesses in this area count on Facebook for visibility,” Norris said. “By linking Facebook and Google Maps, customers could easily drive to the business location.”

The experience challenged the fellows’ skills and underscored the value of teamwork. Both ultimately found the experience fulfilling.

Grey, a self-proclaimed big city girl, says the project was a team effort. “Whoever had the most know-how would take the lead, and the other would assist,” she said. For example, Meis, who had some experience with video development, took charge of creating short videos about the county, as well as video tours of the communities  of Hadar, Osmond, Pierce and Plainview. Grey led poster development for the shop local effort. They split up logo and slogan creation for the county and the town of Pierce.

Meis used a high-end cell phone and a drone for the video shoots and said she had to learn a lot about editing. Now the videos live on YouTube and relevant websites.

“The purpose is to get the word out about why this is a great place to live,” Meis said. “It’s about community pride and focusing on assets and amenities, not deficits.” Videos focus on themes of live, grow, learn and build in Pierce County.

Grey was proud of her work with the logo and slogan -- stronger together -- for Pierce County. Meis took the marketing lead for the town of Pierce which, due to its proximity to larger Norfolk, didn’t claim much of an identity. In an effort to revitalize Pierce, Norris led efforts to participate in UNL’s Entrepreneurial Communities Activation Process. Meis’ slogan for the effort is Pierce Building for the Future.

Norris already has applied for two Rural Fellows for summer 2021. Communities pay $5,000 per student plus a total of $2,000 for housing and additional expenses. For 2021, UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is offering grants for up to $2,000 per student fellow to help communities cover the cost. The 2020 Pierce County fellows stayed in campus apartments in Norfolk, thanks to a partnership with Northeast Community College.

Grey, who is job hunting, plans to launch her own business selling a plant-based skincare product line, and Norris is helping with her with business planning. Meis still has a few years left before she finishes college and believes her fellows experience has set her up for success. “Susan (Norris) taught me important leadership skills,” she said.

The fellows made an impact on the communities they served, too. Norris took them to every meeting in town and required that they do a press release every couple of weeks outlining their work.

“They became semi-famous,” she said.

Jordan Rasmussen, Rural Prosperity Nebraska Extension educator in the northeast part of the state, said that bringing students to rural places can feed the employment pipeline. After seeing how much impact they had in the community, “we hope they’ll come back,” Rasmussen said. “You can make a living here and make a good life here.”

To apply as a Rural Fellows host or student, see

By Jane Schuchardt

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