Tennessee Tech's Grand Challenge, Rural Reimagined: Transforming Rural Areas Even Among a Pandemic

Kinsey Simone, M.A.,Team Lead, Communications and Statistical Analysis, Tennessee Tech University

Kinsey Simone, M.A.,Team Lead, Communications and Statistical Analysis, Tennessee Tech University

In March 2019, Tennessee Tech chose to embark in a Grand Challenge to transform rural living through harnessing science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Aligned with and in response to Governor Bill Lee’s first executive order, this Grand Challenge came to be known as Rural Reimagined and has since made an impact in 44 rural counties surrounding the university, in addition to harnessing over $8 million in rural-related grants. Most importantly, Rural Reimagined has succeeded in connecting Tennessee Tech students, staff, faculty, and community members in a holistic mission to transform and revitalize rural regions within the Upper Cumberland region and across the state of Tennessee, the nation, and the world.

Rural areas face a variety of challenges, and our goal for the Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge (RR) is to examine and research those issues and find innovative ways to solve them. These issues range from low to no access to grocery stores and fresh produce, quality physical and mental health care, broadband  internet, transportation, substance abuse, low inclusion and diversity, lack of nutrition or childcare, among others. The presence of these issues is not to say that rural communities are doing anything wrong; RR is not trying to change the image of rural but instead collaborate with rural communities to identify the problems that they face and to supply research, ideas, and resources to collaboratively solve those problems.

The expansion and success of the Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge has not been a linear process by any means, and its founders and leaders continue to foster innovative ideas for its improvement and impact. For example, I remember when it was implemented in March 2019, with less than 15 faculty and staff, as well as two student interns, at the planning table. Our goal was to not only develop a Grand Challenge which transformed rural living, but one that also transformed the mindsets of our university into ones which sought to make differences through leveraging what skills and resources we already had across our nine colleges. Our goal was not to change rural, but instead to listen to our rural communities’ challenges and embark in a partnership to transform rural living together.

After a summer of planning strategies for communicating our goals and fostering projects university-wide, the idea of a student club was developed with the goal of fostering passions for rural among our students. In Fall 2019, we had nearly 50 students at the first meeting. These students chose their own service project to help a rural historic village, Rugby. Although the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic shortly after resulted in a decrease in club members or the abilities to serve rural communities in person, we learned that our students had the capabilities and passions to use their own diverse skill sets to transform our rural communities, if given the chance to do so.

“Although the pandemic is still affecting our nation, Tennessee Tech is slowly going back to “normal,” and students, faculty, and staff are excited to have more opportunities to serve on the Rural Reimagined team”

While the COVID-19 pandemic brought its own diverse challenges to our mission of transforming rural, we learned that there were different ways in which Tennessee Tech could support rural areas even if we could not have physical contact with them. Our faculty members worked diligently to conduct rural research and apply for rural-related grant funds. By Spring 2022, when we were finally going back to “normal” as a university, our faculty have received over $8 million in rural-related grant funds. These funds went towards collaborative, interdisciplinary research in many varied areas, including rural healthcare; access to clean food, water, and energy; increased access to Wi-Fi and Broadband; and increased access to educational resources, among others.

We spent the majority of the time during the pandemic in which we could not connect in-person to foster and expand relationships with other rural-serving organizations, such as our region’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), Upper Cumberland Development District (UCDD), and Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency (UCHRA) to collaborative on rural-serving projects and expand our impact. Just recently, we partnered with these organizations on a TANF Poverty grant and received $25 million to bring hundreds of families out of poverty across our region. We have learned that it is possible to transform our own approaches to succeed in transforming our rural areas.

Although the pandemic is still affecting our nation, Tennessee Tech is slowly going back to “normal,” and students, faculty, and staff are excited to have more opportunities to serve on the Rural Reimagined team. We continue to leverage the assets, resources, academics, volunteers, and service-learning opportunities across the university to develop, support, and accelerate the success of rural areas throughout Tennessee in a way that can be replicated to help rural areas throughout the country and the world. We also now see that we can be sustainable and continue to serve our rural areas despite challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through the vision of the Grand Challenge, we see every student, faculty, and administrator having the opportunity to bring their expertise, talent, and collaboration into examining and researching rural issues. With over 350 ongoing rural projects, our rural-related grant funding, over 50,000 student service hours in rural areas, and the involvement of over 1,000 faculty and 2,000 students, we believe that we can and will impact our surrounding rural areas while positioning TN Tech as the center for and model of rural engagement across the state and throughout the nation. We will continue to learn how to expand our impact, and we encourage other community organizations, educators, economic developers, students, faculty, staff, and members of rural areas to become empowered to make an impact and transform rural.

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